Tips for aspiring performers

Johanna Steen asked me the following:
“A great many young aspiring musicians look up to you.
What are the hard truths they need to know about what it takes to succeed and make a life as a bard, and how do they know if they have the talent and drive to pursue that path?”

First of all, I think that if you have the drive, you know it. It won’t let you sleep, you get so excited about traveling and playing music. This was the case for me, at any rate. ¬†More sane people think about this kind of thing, and it just makes them tired. ūüėČ

I’ve limited myself to ten pieces of advice for those who’d take the chance on playing music full time. I hope you all find them useful!

1. The first thing I learned at the first music conference I ever went to: don’t be an asshole. Don’t be hard to work with. That doesn’t mean you ought to be a doormat- far from it. It means that you should be at least respectful to all people who would give you money or put you onto a stage to get to do what you love.

2. Be willing to sacrifice everything. This doesn’t mean you have to be miserable in order to have an awesome artsy career. On the contrary, it means you may just need to shift your head a little bit to one side- for instance, deciding to get enough sleep the night before a concert INSTEAD of staying out all night with your friends, so that you can do a good job at your show.

Which leads me to the next important thing:

3. Practice. Not to the point of pain, but to the point that YOU know it’ll be good at showtime. Often the only thing between me and an awesome show is…well, me. Not because I haven’t practiced, but because I get scared that I¬†haven’t practiced enough! It’s easier to talk yourself down from stage fright if you can honestly say to yourself, “there’s nothing in this show that I don’t know how to play/sing/do.” Make it so.

4. What another successful singer told me, when I was still in college and hadn’t yet started performing full-time: sing for everyone. When you’re just getting your little engine going up the hill, and maybe forever, keep an open mind. You never know who your diehard fans will be. Take as many opportunities to sing for people you’ve never met before as you have the energy to take. You never know who’ll be listening. You never know who might still be listening ten years later.
Example: When I still lived in Memphis, TN, I had at least one fan who was part of Ballet Memphis. He was a pro and a sweet heart, and he ended up choreographing something to one of my songs. Because I gave him permission to use my music, I can say that a professional ballet company has used my tunes- not something many indie folk singers can say!

5. It’s okay to take a break. In recent years, I was working myself much too hard. I’m learning now how not to do that. Better to figure this out before you hit a wall and find yourself getting sick all the time, or depressed, or just plain exhausted. Work for your goals, but take care of yourself, too.

6. Don’t call yourself names. We all mess up. None of us is perfect. One of my favorite voice teachers said to me once, after a performance where I knew I wasn’t at my best, “even your stumbling is beautiful. You are beautiful with a capital B.” This applies to songwriting, too. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to cultivate this or that idea, just because it might seem a little weird. You never know until you try. If it turns out that people enjoy the things that come out of your more odd choices, let your garden get a little wild.

7. Never, never, never give up! Even when you’re at your lowest, you’re chasing a dream that so many people share, but few have the courage to go after.

8. If you get stuck, try new things. Sing something you’ve never tried singing before. Tune one of your strings down to a different note. Take a road trip and try practicing somewhere you don’t usually go- hell, just go in a different room if you can! Sometimes it’s that simple.

9. Look for people you can get along with to play music with. It’s easy to say, “OMG, I’d drop EVERYTHING to be in a band with [insert celebrity here],” but you don’t know that person at all. You might be completely incompatible.
Play music with people who want to play music with YOU. The word is synergy: if you can form a band, even a temporary one, with other people who GET you, who LIKE you, and who want to make something awesome with you- AND YOU want to make something awesome with THEM, that’s when the magic happens. That’s how it’s been with every band I’ve been part of in the last decade. I recommend it.10. The world doesn’t owe you a living. Don’t act like it, or you’ll never get anywhere. Never decide that you know everything there is to know. I’ve been chasing my own dream, and living it, for almost ten years- I *definitely* still¬†have a lot to learn! Always be open to learning more than you already know.

BONUS TIP: Back to not deciding that you know everything there is to know.
I still take voice lessons and guitar lessons sometimes.
Does that seem strange?
It isn’t.
If you meet someone who can do something you don’t know how to do, or they can do something you know how to do, but they do it in a way that you really like, try asking that person to be your teacher. Do someone that honor, and she/he/ze will gladly help you level up.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for the question, Johanna!

EDIT:  Worth watching, and very relevant to the conversation: Neil reminds us to Make. Good. Art.