Making It Professionally as a Self-Taught Musician

Self-taught musicians in a professional capacity are like Spanish speakers from inner-city Los Angeles traveling in Spain. The foundation of the language is the same but there are significant differing points that may make understanding each other challenging.

There are incredible benefits to being a self-taught musician (strong ear and unspoiled creativity to name a few) but the downside is in how us self-taughties perform in unfamiliar professional contexts. We can argue over whether prejudice exists between self-taught and professionally taught (it does) and we can argue over which is the better of the two (I don’t believe either is better) but the reality is a) both exist in the same arena and b) music is inherently cooperative. Self-taught and professional; we need to work together.

From my experiences as a self-taught musician here are 3 areas to work on that will decrease the barriers and help you confidently step into professional situations.

Increase your brain power

If you’ve made it this far without professional music instruction you are probably leaning on the strength of your ear and you may not even know it. I know self-taught musicians who have pretty much developed Perfect Pitch but the ear has limitations and it can only imagine what it’s heard. This means your ‘output’ is limited by what you have previously ‘input.’ This is where sight reading and basic music theory come into play.

Learn the basic useful bits of contemporary music theory and be able to recall it in real time. At the bare minimum be able to know the sharps and flats of every key, name the notes of every minor, major and 7th chords, know your intervals and be able to transpose on the fly. Know this stuff as fast as the chords change. Any less than that and it’s not practical in professional settings.

Second to basic theory is being able to sight read. If you get called in to a recording session or called in for a corporate gig chances are your charts will have rhythms and crucial melodies printed in sheet music. If you can nail those melodies (even if you’ve never heard them) the first or second try, you’ll be golden and your life will be much less stressful.

Increase your efficiency

Speed and accuracy are everything in music. I don’t mean how quickly and accurately your can shred the neck, ivory or valves of your instrument. I mean how quickly and accurately you can get the ideas in your head out through your fingertips. Accuracy is about getting to the perfect notes fast and efficiently while also playing in the pocket and with the right emotion. Producers won’t waste time while you clumsily fiddle your ideas out. If you can nail your parts in 2-3 passes, you’ll get plenty of work.

The next step is to take your already strong ear and improve the way it hears melodies, harmonies, tensions, resolutions and chord progressions. I took an Ear Training course through my university that blew my mind and took my ear to a new level. Here’s the start of an example curriculum but try Google for lots of free and paid classes.

  • Stage 1 – Intervals – play 2 notes one at a time and name the interval between (ex.: C-F is a fourth, C-A is a sixth)
  • Stage 2 – Simultaneous Intervals – play 2 notes at the same time and name the interval
  • Stage 3 – Chords – play basic triads and name the chord (ex.: EGB is E minor)
  • Stage 4 – Inversions – play basic triads and seventh chords in all different inversions and name the chord and inversion (example: GCE = C Major in 2nd inversion – C/G)
  • etc.

Increase your technique and aural efficiency to develop better ideas and get them out faster with fewer re-dos.

Increase your focus

The one thing formal music lessons are great for is structure. Good teachers have multiple years worth of curriculum in their back pocket and a good clear system for teaching that to their students. As I began to really take music seriously as a career I was all over the place, jumping from one exercise to another with no heed for process and no idea if I was accomplishing anything.

In Keller and Papasan’s book “One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results” they talk about how taking a minimalist approach to production increases your focus. As the title says, the goal is to focus on “one thing” (Not entirely revolutionary I know, but simple is almost always better).

Four or five years into teaching myself guitar, I scribbled down everything I was currently learning and everything I’ve always wanted to learn. I then laid out a calendar and began to make a plan – week by week – that included goals and deadlines. In music there are natural learning progressions such as learning Major and Minor scales before Modes. Organize your practice schedule with this natural progression in mind and use common sense.