Advice For Pro Musicians

Every musician has a different reason for making music. For some it’s a momentary escape from the pressures of daily life. For others it’s to attract the wandering eyes of the opposite gender. And to the lucky few, it’s managed to become the all-powerful paycheck. But one thing we all have in common is that there was an initial spark that set our musical worlds ablaze. And though tastes and styles my shift through the years, it’s that same fire that drives us on today.

As musicians, nurturing that flame is one of the most important things we can do. If you love playing an instrument, make time for it. If you live for the rush of the stage, join a band. If you’re a songwriter, get out to open mic nights and share your creations. Just make sure you do it. If we don’t tend to that fire with passion and purpose, it can burn us or, even worse, burn out completely. Let me explain. 

As a Seattle boy growing up in the 1990s, music was everywhere around me, and I gravitated toward any genre where the electric guitar was loud, heavy, and weird. But in college, I found myself in the middle of Washington State’s farming community, where to perform live, I had to join my first Top-40 cover band. The rehearsals were tedious, the band was terrible (especially yours truly), and I I wasn’t much of a fan of our set list. But you do what you gotta do. After college I went looking for the next step in my journey to being a professional musician, so off to Nashville I went, surrounding myself with some of the most brilliant musicians in the world playing songs about whiskey, tailgates, tight jeans, and cold ones. Again, I wasn’t a fan. 

After living in Nashville for about 30 seconds, I decided I was done. If a career in music meant playing “Mustang Sally” in dive bars or feeling nauseous while I heard vocalists exclaim the virtues of mind-numbing country lyrics, I no longer wanted any part of it. I sold most of my guitar gear and moved back to Seattle. But when I lost my job during the economic crash of the late 2000s, I helped make ends meet playing my guitar for the dollar again.” I quickly found a local country artist on the rise, got the gig, and dove head-first back into a style I couldn’t stand and one of the most musically tumultuous chapters in my life. I guess I hadn’t learned a thing since college.   

Those next five years would be filled with the juxtaposition of some of the biggest performances of my life with some of the most painful music I’ve ever had to play. It also paired the building of lasting, family-like friendships with feeling used and abandoned by those closest to me. The worst part was knowing I was sucking it up because I wanted to “make it.” My passion suffered, my commitment and performance to the musicians I was playing for suffered, and my homelife was suffering.

I began to realize that my love for musical outreach and creativity had cooled to an ember. It was time to throw some gas on it. I quit the music rat race yet again, but this time I did it right. I got an amazing job as a writer in the music industry, started a local prog trio with some of the baddest players I’ve ever met, helped kickstart a music ministry in my area, and am slowly building a repertoire of solo acoustic fingerstyle material. I’m not making a living playing my guitar, I’m never on big stages any more, and I’m stoked if I get dinner and a couple drinks for a performance. And you know what? I’ve never been happier with my musical life.

Like I said at the top, we’re all different. Your passion may very well be to be the best country session player in the world. You may find your muse producing beats in the studio. Heck, you may be hitting musical nirvana every time you plink out “Chopsticks” on your living room piano. No matter what blows your hair back, never stop! Take it from me, you’re much more likely to find success and/or fulfillment fanning your true musical flame. I guess the moral of the story is, don’t turn your back on the fire that drives you. If you’re not careful, it can burn you bad before burning out forever. 

- Paul Kobylensky