When you hear a performance by a professional whom you admire, it’s likely that part of their allure can’t be described; something about their skills and/or in their demeanor on stage sets them apart from the average musician. Whatever that quality is, it’s not something we can learn as a technical skill, and it’s different for each such performer. (It could be called “charisma”, but there‘s more to it than that.)
Being musically knowledgeable doesn’t necessarily make one a good musician. In fact, it avails us little unless we use our knowledge in ways that transcend dry technical skills and data; these must be balanced with the ability to make the music speak. Music that is nothing but one note following another is OK for muzak*, but not for performance.
Although it may not be possible to define exactly what makes certain performers charismatic, there are some definable skills and traits. These have to be in place for both technical skill and undefinable qualities to really shine:
- They have total passion and drive. (It’s not very common to find a professional musician who never worked very hard at it and had more important things, like doing the laundry, taking precedence in their life.) Having the passion means being driven to learn and practice music as the primary focus of one’s life; they can’t not do it.
- They never let themselves say, “That’s good enough.” They are always improving their skills, always stretching what’s possible, even when they are already at the top of their field.
- They strive for a balance between sounding perfect and sounding real.
What does this mean? Notice I said “sounding perfect”, not “playing perfectly”. Sounding perfect, or close to it, isn’t a matter of actually playing perfectly, though on very rare occasions some musicians do. But no one can play perfectly 100% of the time, and the rest of the time, little imperfections are skillfully hidden. This isn’t cheating – it’s necessary.
Among other skills, how we handle – even use – imperfection determines our ability to perform well. Learning happens as a result of imperfection; imperfections are touchstones to correct our path. It’s like autopilot on an aircraft – a function that continually corrects the path of the plane to keep it going in the right direction.
Striving to always play perfectly is a good policy, as long as you’re realistic and accept that it’s an imaginary goal. If we aim for something bigger than life, we are more likely to attain more in reality than we would if we aim for a lower goal. But that means we have to keep our heads on straight and not get discouraged that reality is always what we get. I’m not saying don’t aim for the best possible goal; I’m saying aim beyond that, and you will achieve real skill.
As for the other part of the equation – sounding real – what does that mean? IMHO, sounding real is being genuine, both in stage demeanor and in musical expression. Being genuine in musical expression means letting the music sing its own song without forcing anything into it. Being genuine in stage demeanor means not acting differently on stage than you would off stage (unless of course you have a tendency to say or do socially unacceptable things off stage, or your conversational grammar is less than stellar). Talking to an audience can be done with a feeling of intimacy if you simply speak as you would to friends, no matter how large your audience is. Being an announcer or a declarer isn’t necessary.
- They are usually not condescending in their personal interactions. I’ve known a few who were, but invariably these were not the folks at the top. They were on their way up, and those who kept that attitude never got all the way to where they wanted to be. There is probably a correlation there.
- They are good business people. I know many excellent musicians who’ve never had much success because they hate doing the necessary business work that backs up a career. Being exclusively right-brained does you no favors. Your art alone will not carry you. Even though a good musician may deserve to succeed on their musical merits alone, anyone who has lived long enough knows that life doesn’t usually just hand you what you deserve. You have to work for it in all the ways that our society requires, and for musicians, half of the work is taking care of business.
What does that mean? It means developing a website, having an online presence in social media, recording your music and making it available to the public and to promoters, locating performance venues, sending promo packets, making phone calls, applying to music convention showcases, showing up on time for every gig and every rehearsal, being 100% reliable, and so on. At the very least, for a local part-time career, it means business cards, demo CDs, and brochures distributed where people come in contact with them.
There are a very few good musicians who are in demand even though they have done little or none of the above; these are usually back-up musicians who enhance the performances of front-people. They become well known among their peers by being present at as many jams and sessions as they can, and developing a reputation for being really, really good. It takes exceptional skill to be someone who makes it on informal personal contact alone.
- They let the music say what cannot be said in spoken word.
- They have multi-faceted musical presentations encompassing many moods, rhythms, and tempos.
- They’re willing to do the hard work of focused, honest practice.
9. They share (“Music is wonderful”) rather than show off (“I am wonderful”)
None of this means that if you don’t choose to make music the prime focus of your life and develop these skills, that there’s anything wrong with doing music the way you choose. Music is your birthright, and you can do it any way that feels good to you. But if you decide to take it as far as you can, hopefully this information will be helpful in that quest.
*(Muzak was a company name that became a generic term for “elevator music”. Essentially what the company did was compress, to an extreme, the dynamic/frequency range of instrumental recordings of popular tunes, rendering them annoyingly inexpressive, and market them to be played over public address systems in stores, restaurants, and yes, elevators. This music was assumed by most people to be provided as a courtesy for the purpose of pleasant ambience, but in fact it was – and still is – used where loitering is discouraged; it works on a subliminal level in such places as restaurants where faster patron turnover increases profits, and in parking lots where store owners don’t want people hanging out.)