So You Want To Be a Musician…

There are a lot of young, musical hopefuls out there with visions of private jets and packed arenas. The glamorous allure of the music business hides a reality that can be harsh and unforgiving. It’s an ego smashing journey of road trips, drunks, cancelled gigs and club owners who expect you to play for exposure. As Dave Howard of the High Rollers, Roomful and Viper fame says, “It’s not all fun and games.”

So why do they do it? Why continue for years in a business with no guarantee of a steady income and with a slim possibility of fame and fortune?

Love and a passion for music seems to be the prime motivator for the musicians I talked with. 2016 Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame inductee and master of the jazz saxophone Greg Abate lays it down plain and simple, “My work is my passion.” The matriarchal blues singer Toni-Lynn Washington echoes that sentiment with, “I have a passion for it.” Her spiritual daughter, vocalist and harmonica player Diane Blue states, “It feeds my soul like nothing else can.” Guitarist Tom Ferraro, veteran of the High Rollers and the Super Chief Trio says, “It’s a tough life, you do it if you love it. I never wanted to be anything else but a good musician.”

Blues vocalist and harmonica player Sugar Ray Norcia, another 2016 Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame inductee, acknowledges that musicians do it, “for the love of it” but advises “always have a backup plan; if you rely solely on music it will be tough.”

Keith Munslow of the chief Super Chief says simply, “I love it.” Brass Attack drummer and heir to the Petteruti music dynasty, Tom Petteruti, loves it as well and “will do it until the day I die.” But he adds, “This isn’t what I do, it’s who I am.”

Dave Howard speaks for himself as well as his colleagues when he says, “Through it all, I have never stopped loving it.”

All you need is love makes a great song title, but what else do you need to survive the road, the clubs and the cold winter nights away from home? Greg Abate, who has achieved international recognition as a jazz artist and tours extensively, advises, “practice, dedication and a constant routine. Have faith in yourself as there is no guarantee.  Be willing to accept the negative and the positive and have a tough skin.”

Greg’s advice to, “play with musicians better than you” is echoed by Super Chief Keith Munslow who also advises young musicians to be “flexible, not stuck in one way of doing things as the landscape of music is always changing.”

“Listen,” says bass player Steve Bigelow. “Listen to your fellow musicians as well as to all kinds of music. Don’t restrict yourself; listening to different types of music broadens your knowledge.”  Blues harmonica player Tim Taylor says, “Listen to the old guys/gals. Stevie Ray Vaughn didn’t get to be Stevie Ray by listening to his contemporaries.” Well-known bass player Joe Potenza also recommends listening to all kinds of music and in this digital age especially, listening to “live music – made all the difference.” “Keep listening,” says Tom Ferraro, “and keep your ego in check.”

Greg Abate warns young musicians to “stay healthy, and avoid alcohol and drugs.” A sentiment backed up by legendary pianist Mark Taber who knows a thing or two about the dark side of this occupational hazard. He chuckles when he says, “It may sound funny coming from me, but you’ve got to watch that stuff.” When you’re impaired he says, “You think you sound wonderful.” In the cold sober light of dawn, it’s a different story.

Youthful Neal Vitullo of the Vipers counsels, “Play from your heart, be true to your heart.” Ms. Toni-Lynn Washington advises young musicians to “follow their dream, whatever they choose.”

The job of a musician is a never-ending journey. They are always listening, always learning. And they always have to cope with the harsh realities of the musical life. Despite all of this they soldier on. Why? Perhaps it is the psychic bond between the music, the musician and the audience. While music is constructed of time, meter and measure, there comes a point when it transcends the physical and transports the musician as well as the listener to a place that is beyond the mundane. It is from that mystical place the energy and drive emerges that allows the musician to bring that magic to the rest of us. For this, we must thank the gods.

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