As a music teacher, I get asked this question often by my students. The general public has a stereotype of what a musician looks like, acts like, and “does” for a living. When asked, “What do you do for a living?” and my short reply is “I’m a professional musician,” I can see their faces and their minds immediately reverting to their stereotype of a starving artist with often ditzy behaviour. 99 times out of a hundred I have to explain further, then their expression turns into surprise and smiles. It is as if they have never actually encountered someone who is not super famous who actually makes a pretty decent living as a musician. But what exactly is a “musician?”
There are different kinds of musicians – performers, teachers, composers, arrangers, players. Performers can be those who play as part of group or those who prefer to play solo. Groups can be anything from rock bands to symphony orchestras. They can tour long and short term, or stay in same city and work all the time there. Studio musicians get the variety of many genres while not having to travel all the time. Performers can even be part of a larger production, like a Broadway or circus show. These shows can be traveling or permanent shows, too. This takes a certain kind of musician who can play the exact same music, same show, night after night, for months or even years at a time. Performers generally have a stage presence that makes people want to see them live. They have an energy, a look, a style – something the audience WANTS to see.
Teachers can be through an institution for group and/or individual lessons, or they can have their own private studio. Many teachers also are performers, and therefore travel, too. I think the teachers who are also professional performing musicians are the best teachers as they are not only sharing their knowledge, but are also DOING the job they teach. These musicians “CAN and DO and TEACH.”
Composers are also musicians, and many perform their own music. It is an incredible feeling to hear other musicians performing the music you composed, and an even greater feeling when you get to be a part of the performance. Not all musicians are composers by trade, but almost every musician has created something.
Arrangers are musicians as they usually hear music and then change it around to fit certain instrumentation. This takes a special talent to do this successfully. The right ear, the right voicing, the right sound. Many teachers do this all the time for their students. I certainly do! “Mrs. Jones, I want to learn to play …” Rather than deny my students the joy of playing that song, I will arrange it for their instrument. Many times, there is no sheet music for their selections, and I have to listen to the recording and dictate it out. This can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, depending on difficulty level of student. I don’t want to make something so easy for an advanced student, so I make it as difficult as their level. I do this on my own time because I want my students to enjoy playing their instruments, and not be forced to stay with only the required repertoire. Most parents have no clue the training required to do this, and have little to no appreciation that I spent MY time doing this JUST for their child.
Players are different from performers. These are the musicians that prefer to be hidden and not featured. Players like to be in the back of a section, or are too shy to be solo artists. Many times, players are very good musicians who like the stability of not having to deal with leadership responsibilities, are told when and where to be, what music they will play, and how to dress. They are followers. Most sit by the phone and wait for people to call them, as opposed to pounding the pavement to look for gigs, or better still, CREATING gigs for themselves and other musicians. Studio musicians can also be considered players, unless they are being filmed when many become performers with their actions and styles.
Back to the original question. When asked by my students, I give them the explanation, and then further discuss that they do not have to be just ONE kind of musician. They can focus their training and education for one area, and do very well, but if they expand their knowledge, they will become more employable as a musician. That leads to having a happy life in a career that they love!