12 Rules for Success as a Modern Musician

advice Dec 31, 2020

No matter what life throws at you, there are principles you can live by to ensure you're doing all you can on the path to success. These 12 Rules have served me over the years and I'm curious to know which rules resonate most with you and what rules you would add to them.

  1. Sharpen the axe daily 

    One of my favorite quotes of all time is “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” by Aristotle. If you agree with this quote, in order to be excellent musicians we must have a daily habit of practicing our craft. If you want to be able to hear harmony better, is it something you work on daily? Any area of music in which you feel you are not yet excellent, ask yourself if that is something you have made into a daily habit.

  2. Leverage your musical strengths...

    In a world of over 7.5 Billion people, it's important to distinguish ourselves based on our strengths. What is the one thing you do better than anyone else in your musical peer group? Maybe it's understanding complex harmony, maybe it's teaching, or maybe it's your ability to focus for hours in the practice room. Whatever your personal musical strength is, you need to identify that and use it to maximize your advantage as a musician.

  3. ...but constantly expand your skillset.

    While it's important to market and maximize your strengths, your growth as a musician depends on expanding your skillset. Instead of thinking of this in the negative as working on your weaknesses, think of the areas in which you have the most potential for growth. This could be specific to your instrument, such as developing the skillset to be able to play fast ii-V-I lines on your instrument, or more of a soft skill like growing your audience as a musician on social media.

  4. Develop your own voice.

    By having unlimited access to music across the world via the internet and watching and listening to musicians via social media, it is easy to fall into the trap of imitation. We can quickly see what's trending and what styles and songs are getting more likes and views. If you find yourself thinking in this way, it is the death of you as an artist. Your development as an artist comes from asking yourself questions and finding your own answers. What do I like? Why do I like how this sounds? What if I added this? What if I took away that? Answer based on personal introspection and experience and your result will be inspired, not imitation.

  5. Be a good hang.

    Music in many ways is a social activity where the listeners directly experience the emotion being created on stage. If you are a musician who vibes others then you kill that feeling and are literally making the music worse. People who are a good hang make better music. The best musicians in the world are also the humblest and happiest. As my brother Kevin likes to say, "What Would Herbie Do?"

  6. Find a mentor.

    The tradition of music is being passed down aurally from generation to generation. In the modern era, we can learn so much online, but the specific stories, details, and nuances are best learned from a mentor. This might be a traditional music teacher, but it could also be listening to the source material and letting the music speak for itself.

  7. Be a mentor.

    In addition to the value you might get in mentoring a student of music, the process of mentoring will also teach you. Through teaching I have refined and developed my own thinking and methods, which have then seeped into my actual playing. A real example of that is my new eBook, "The 60 Master ii-V-I Lines".

  8. Understand what your audience wants and how to reach them.

    Music can be played for its own sake, but as a professional musician we are creating music for some audience, whether that's a live audience or online, or composing to accompany another artwork such as a film or game. For better or worse, much of your professional success as a musician depends on how well you've thought of the audience your music is for and how exactly you will get your music to them.

  9. "Discipline Equals Freedom." - Jocko Willink

    Kevin and I are huge fans of former Navy SEAL, podcaster, and all-around badass, Jocko Willink. His motto defines the universal formula that the more discipline you put into an area of your life the more freedom you will have. If you are more disciplined in your practice, you will be more capable and free on your instrument. If you are more disciplined in your commitments, you will have more freedom to do what you want. Apply more discipline to an area of your life and you will get more freedom.

  10. Have a long-term perspective.

    Any success worth having doesn't come overnight. Many people think of JazzMemes as "blowing up" in a short time, but the truth is Kevin and I have been building this community for over 6 years. We don't think about the short-term hack because we're planning for how to change the game over the next five years. Adopt a long-term perspective and you will also ease some of your anxiety and overwhelm that makes you feel like you're running out of time. You have time, but you have to put in the work everyday towards a long term goal.

  11. Keep your non-musical life in check.

    I'll keep this one short. We all know a killing musician that messed themselves up because they let their personal life get out of hand. Don't let that happen to you. Handle your relationships, family, friends, finances, health, etc. and you'll be playing music for many more years.

  12. Believe your greatest growth lies ahead of you.

    Reflect on the last year of your life and think of all that you accomplished, all the areas you grew, and all of the hardship you survived. So much of that growth would have seemed impossible to the "you" of 5-10 years ago. The next year will bring new things into your life and get rid of others, but if you approach it with the right mindset you can guarantee that it will bring levels of growth beyond your imagination.

To your musical success,


P.S. If you got something out of this, share this with a friend who you think would dig it also. 

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