Career Tips for Jazz Majors

Jazz majors: you’re more likely to find work if you pay attention to these career tips. Even if you’re not a jazz major, however, you’re likely to find a lot of this information relevant and useful.

1. Prepare well.
If you want to perform, you’ve got to be at the top of your game. All of the other career-building techniques and skills will be “meaningless when you are not prepared on your instrument,” says Javier Arau, composer, saxophonist, and founder/director of the New York Jazz Academy. “As a student, make sure you are spending more time on your instrument, actually studying music, more than anything else.”

2. Connect with other musicians.
A musician cannot work in isolation. It’s important to understand this and incorporate it into your world as a jazz major.

Peter Stoltzman, composer, jazz pianist and head of Piano at University of Colorado Denver, Music Entertainment & Industry Studies says: “Music is social. Music careers are social. You have to connect with people.”

3. Utilize your professors and visiting artists.
Jazz professors are typically gigging musicians themselves. See if you can sit in on their gigs, suggests saxophonist Javon Jackson, director of the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz at The Hartt School.

Peter Stoltzman adds, “Once you start to make an impression on your peers and teachers, you start to get opportunities—friends invite you to jam sessions, teachers might hire you for a gig, visiting artists get to hear you perform or they play with you in a concert. Your circle expands.”

4. Take other music majors seriously.
Your peers may be the people who end up hiring you, and vice-versa. Respect them as colleagues, and offer and receive the kind of support you all need to get through school and become the musicians you want to be.

Vocalist, composer and saxophonist Amber Navran, USC Thornton School of Music graduate says: “Stay positive. Be non-judgmental and kind to all musicians you meet – you never know where someone will end up or who will want to call you for a gig. Don’t hate on other kinds of music because they are less complex than jazz. Be open to playing and exploring all kinds of music.”

“A lot of my favorite jazz groups had their foundations formed in school,” says Daniel Weidlein, another saxophonist and USC Thornton alum. “Pieces and parts change, but the core of a lot of the best bands were formed by musicians who developed a bond while in school together.”

5. Practice efficiently.
“You will NEVER have this much time to practice ever again – take advantage of that and develop yourself into the best musician, composer, artist, and human being you possibly can!” urges Mike Casey, saxophonist and graduate of the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz at The Hartt School.

“Here’s a secret: whatever you practice, discipline yourself to practice with a 3:1 ratio of success to mistakes. Most people practice with the opposite, or worse. They play things five or ten times with mistakes, and finally get it right, and they think, ‘Phew, I got it.’ No. You don’t have it. You just programmed your brain and body to play mistakes 80-90% of the time. And then you lament how frustrating it is to practice for two hours and make the same mistakes the next day! “ – Peter Stoltzman

6. Learn to be professional.
“Be on time, be prepared, be flexible. Learn as many tunes as you can, be a great reader. Meet and study with (if possible) the people who are doing what you would like to do, go out and hear live music, learn from the older generation of musicians,” says Vern Silert, associate trumpet professor and director of Jazz Studies at the Lionel Hampton School of Music at the University of Idaho.

In his DIY book “Living the Dream: The Morning After Music School,” musician Brian Horner features a list of top ten behaviors to avoid if you want to work as a professional musician. He includes “Fail to return calls or emails” and “Waste your colleagues’ time by showing up late or missing rehearsals or gigs.” A concert saxophonist, music professor and music management company owner, Horner also urges young professionals to avoid “consistently taking the position that you are right (and that somebody else must have made the mistake).”

7. Find balance.
This isn’t an easy one and may take many years – even a lifetime – to really figure out. But now is a good time to start working on it. Mike Casey encourages jazz majors to “Try to find a balance between living life, practicing, connecting with your fellow music students, writing your own music, and studying the music business.”

8. Get experience in areas of music outside of jazz.
“There’s not a ton of work in the jazz field,” says Daniel Weidlein, who majored in Jazz Studies and minored in Recording. “Yes, you can join a working big band if you’re lucky, or maybe become a sideman with a well-known jazz artist, or even better, start your own group that has a viable touring career…but these opportunities are few and far between. Most of the work is in other areas of music. Take the time to learn the nuances of other musical styles (pop, rock, R&B). How can you cross-apply your jazz skills to these areas and use them to your advantage? At the end of the day, the most important thing is to be able to write/arrange your own music and be able to apply the same cross-genre study to writing as well.”

9. Plan ahead.
Mike Casey recommends figuring out your next step plans when you reach your senior year. That way, when you graduate, you’ll hit the ground running. Or at least walking fast.

What can you do when you first graduate?

1. Network.
Chad McCullough, who received degrees in trumpet performance from the University of Idaho and the University of Washington, performs and also teaches trumpet at DePaul University School of Music Jazz Studies. “Find all of the people who are doing what you want to do,” he says, “and do anything you can for them. Friendships are what make careers in the music industry… friends hire friends.”

Peter Stoltzman agrees: “When you graduate, you have friends that become the core of your network/tribe/community. You can’t survive happily without a tribe. You have to start this while you’re in school. Stay connected and physically close to your tribe!”

2. Be visible.
“Find a way to be visible,” says saxophonist Greg Johnson, D.M.A., M.M., USC Thornton School of Music; B.M., University of Northern Colorado, and director of Jazz Studies at the Marin School of the Arts. “Go to shows, jam sessions, take lessons, make the hang. No one will know to call you if they don’t know who you are, how you interact with people, and how you sound.”

“Go out to support your friends’ music,” urges Amber Navran. “People notice when you’re a supportive friend/peer. It’s inspiring to see what other people are doing, and it inspires them to support you and to call you for gigs, too.”

3. Take a day job?
Taking a non-music job to help pay the rent is a highly debatable topic. Some new graduates do everything possible to avoid this.

“Try as hard as you can to keep all (or most) of your employment music related, and as close to your dreams as possible,” says saxophonist Mike Casey. “I’ve seen too many musicians graduate and get ‘stuck’ in their careers by working 9-5 day jobs instead of embracing the hustle that being an independent musician/artist/business owner is about –– and trying to make that work first. It helps if you have some money saved initially to survive the first year after graduating. If you embrace the hustle right away, know this: it is far from easy, and you’ll likely need some financial padding if you want to avoid getting stuck in a non-musical job. A music career is a marathon, not a sprint!”

But Greg Johnson disagrees: “Day jobs are not a bad thing. While a lot of musicians are sleeping and watching Netflix, you can be making money and preparing for your next gig. The fewer hours that you have to practice become way more precious.”

Kevin Smith, bassist and associate director of admissions for School of Jazz at the New School adds, “As is the case for most students going into any creative field, you will need to find a way to earn a living beyond just performing. This will require dedication, legitimate goals, time management. Keep a short- and long-term plan in mind. Most of all, be honest with yourself about what you need in life to be happy with yourself and with your art form.”

4. Use your business savvy.
It’s essential to take an active role in promoting yourself and your music. If you’ve missed out on entrepreneurship skills, find a way to learn them. Figuring out how to brand your music, understanding what your audiences want, and using creative ways to market your music are all important.

“Make it happen for yourself,” says Amber Navran. “Record, make videos, have a website, be on social media in a strong but humble way. You never know where YouTube and Twitter can take you, and having strong music to show people is the easiest way to get gigs.” Daniel Weidlein adds, “Refine your ability to present yourself in a professional manner that shows off your musical talents as well as your business acumen.”

5. Join professional organizations that support your professional goals.
JEN, SESAC, NAMM, College Music Society, state chapters of the American Federation of Musicians, the Musicians Union in the UK, and professional music publishing organizations like BMI and ASCAP are some of the many organizations jazz majors will find worth checking out. Learn what you can and then see if you can get an invitation to attend events to help figure out which ones are worth joining.

6. Use the alumni network.
Most schools have strong alumni networks, and new graduates are urged to utilize them. The career development and alumni centers at your school should be able to guide you there.

How important is travel for a career in jazz?

  • Travel is a good way to become visible.  Every time I go somewhere new, I sell albums, sheet music and get more traffic on my website. Traveling can build relationships that lead to more performance and compositional opportunities.  – Greg Johnson, saxophonist and arts school jazz director
  • Travel becomes a huge part of the life. I wouldn’t give anything away for the opportunities I’ve had to see the world, and the entire continental USA playing music.  – Brett McDonald, saxophonist and pit orchestra member
  • Travel also helps define who you are and what music you are making.  From my experience and what I’ve seen in others, travel and exploration are key to staying fresh to your listeners.  – Kevin Smith, bassist and assoc. director of admissions
  • If you don’t explore other musical communities, you run the risk of severely limiting yourself to things you are familiar with. Musicians need a bit of uncertainty to really grow, and putting yourself in foreign situations can be a great way to force the issue!  – Paul Shinn, pianist
  • The most rewarding and fulfilling experiences I’ve had have been playing music and touring in other countries.  – Chad McCullough, trumpeter and professor
  • Travel can be fun and it can be grueling. And it can make it hard to hold any steady gigs where you live. At a certain point, there are decisions to make about how much traveling you’re going to do. But I highly recommend that performers dive in and live that life for at least a few years. You don’t want to regret not doing it. Is it crucial to a successful career? No. Only if you’re trying to be a star. If you or your band want to have a national or international audience, you have to travel. A lot!  – Peter Stoltzman, pianist and department chair

Parting Thoughts

  • Study with the best people you possibly can, and try to study with a diverse array of teachers. You may learn as much or more from the piano professor even if you’re a saxophonist. – Daniel Weidlein, multi-instrumentalist and producer
  • The improvisation you learn as a jazz major will impact your life whatever you do.  – Javon Jackson, saxophonist and department chair
  • Look for scholarships and grants before enrolling. There are a lot of great opportunities for musicians to help fund their career, so with 20/20 hindsight I wish I’d done a bit more research before applying. – Freddy Gonzalez, trombonist
  • Compose. You can’t be a successful professional jazz musician just playing other people’s music.You need to hone that craft while you’re in school. Take composition lessons; take orchestration; study your favorite composers and take advantage of the amazing world that is a university library and their vast stacks of real scores.  – Daniel Weidlein, multi-instrumentalist and producer
  • Listen to more music, and sing way more than you think you should! – Chad McCullough, trumpeter and professor

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