Monday, 22 February 2010

Guide to Music Performance: The Professional Musician's Toolkit

This is the first part in a series looking at the Professional Musician's Toolkit. Here we will look at the practical side of being a musician: playing well.

There are 5 main areas of music performance:
  1. Music Theory - transferable
  2. Technique - instrument specific
  3. Musicianship - transferable
  4. Teamwork - transferable
  5. Stage Presence - transferable
Mastering each section to equivalent standards creates the best platform for development as a musician, for example, a brilliant technique with clever chordal progressions and crisp phrasing will amount to nothing without good teamwork with other musicians and understanding your audience.

One mistake I hear many musicians complain about is to focus too much on one of these core areas. Ever heard someone moan:

'I'm so much better than them but I don't make any money'

This response is prompted by someone who takes great pride in their technique, theory and possibly musicianship, but neglects the humility required for successful teamwork and the experience required for dynamic audience reading and stage presence - don't forget in order to master your performance you have to make sure everything you do 'looks easy' (read fluent), no matter how hard it is!

Music Theory

These are the building blocks for music. It is the way you structure your thoughts about music over time - not necessarily knowing how to read staves, transpose parts for horn in F or write out manuscript in the style of Bach. Music Theory is the grammar of the language that is music and as with any language it helps to form a structure on which to base your ideas.

Without theory you will find all other areas struggle or are only able to progress to a certain point in time as you begin to find it harder to communicate your ideas to your fellow musicians - imagine a novel written only in present first singular tense; yes, you would tell a story: I do this, I do that, I do that, I do this, but it would be no match for even the next level of grammatical comprehension, let alone a novel or Shakespeare's works!


This is all about how you play your individual instrument. It includes scales, arpeggios, chordal progressions, harmonics, pitch bending, fine tuning, maintenance and even posture and breathing. Technique is the muscle memory required to play notes. It is the ability to get sound out of your instrument and the better the technique, the more sounds and the more range you are capable of at more varying speeds.

This is the area that causes the most controversy as it is what most musicians will value the most - fair enough, as it is what will take the longest investment of time and money to achieve and so pride becomes inevitable for this particular skill. It is not the only requirement of a musician.


This is the way in which you combine both music theory and technique to create your sound. It includes dynamics, articulation and phrasing. In improvisation it also includes choice of notes and chordal progressions relative to other music (but this is a crossover with teamwork, which we will see later).

So, you know what the notes you could play are, you know how to play them on your instrument, now we look at Ways of varying your delivery:
  1. How loud or quiet, or how much of a change in dynamic through what period of time
  2. How short or long the note, how abruptly it begins or finishes
  3. The timbre of the note - how much weight or bright or dark the sound along with other effects or processes - most obvious with electric guitarists
  4. Phrasing is best described as imagining a particular melody or line of music as a sentence, it begins, flows together coherently, (even iambic pentameter flows to the end) and comes to a finish. There should be a logical flow to how a line is presented, or, artistically, there should deliberately not be any flow.]
  5. Music should be contextualised. It is not typically appropriate to play a Metallica's Kirk Hammett-esque ripped up solo for a twelve-bar blues solo at your local jazz club. I am not suggesting it isn't allowed - or hasn't been tried!
Most of this is done without thinking because it is the 'soul' of your music. Interestingly the contextualisation of music happens automatically through cultural influence where we see different genres of music as localised organic developments.

The sociologist in me would speculate that music is a carbon copy of current affairs, politics and civil mentality and that through studying it and its cultures you can piece together how people felt about different circumstances and see how situations developed or were dealt with - but that's another rant.


This is an interesting one, as it is not considered paramount importance straight away, but I would suggest that this is the lifeline of any aspiring musician. The ability to get on with people you meet as well as being reasonable and upholding professional integrity, and above all, working with others in an unselfish way.

Music will become convoluted and incoherent if members cannot understand each other or if one member chooses to solo or take the lime light all the time. The classic rock guitar solos would be terrible if you went to 5 hours of just Angus Young tearing it up all the time, non-stop, back-to-back, relentlessly. Similarly Oasis, famed for the utter resentment in the band, was not muddied in performance by one member jumping up and down trying to grab attention (in both examples, the whole band did it, to great effect.)

In summary, to have the wisdom to know where you lie in the band's overall sound and to blend (or stand out) appropriately is a key skill.

Stage Presence

Referring to live performance, this is the ability to choose an appropriate set, lineup, volume, banter between songs/commentary between pieces in order to make the audience feel at ease and have an entertaining (priority one) and fulfilling (priority two) time.

You must aim to be entertaining and engaging first and foremost. This will encourage repeat bookings. This will improve your performance and access to resources which will enable you to create your masterpiece. Very few achieve abstract messaging straight out of the can, it requires long-term development, an interesting back story (more on this in future marketing posts) and an understanding of what you are involved with/how to deal with different situations.

The seriousness aside, this is the most fun section - having done over 300+ gigs, I've done gigs where people have jumped on stage and thrown up all over the place, one where a sober man stripped naked in the middle of a town, others where everything you could imagine has been free to take as much as you choose, others that have been very prim and formal, many that have been full to bursting with very, very drunk nutters, and a couple with riots, death circles, world class professionals, local startups, celebrities, people who wish they were celebrities, playing with drunk people, playing with drugged people, playing with some of the most intelligent minds I've ever seen, playing in some of the most legendary places in contemporary music (100 club, for example) or some of the biggest venues (MEN Arena, Manchester) or some of the most unknown (someone's living room that fitted 2 grand pianos a full pa system and a 6 piece band as well as guests), some of the most expensive (Cambridge University Graduation Balls) and some of the simplest or most charitable.

Once you develop all the skill sets required to respond to different situations, you are able to achieve many interesting things and see many different places (and things! eek)

Theo Smith is a session musician from London, UK. He studies Music Management at University of East London.

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