The 3 skills that all professional musicians possess

Private lessons, music theory, and aural skills


Sometimes people come up to me at a concert and say, “You make this look so easy –  you have an amazing talent!” People understand that it takes some training to become a professional musician, but it seems that a lot is attributed to talent. The fact is that it takes about 20 years of hard work to become a complete musician. A lot of that work comes from practice on your instrument, but there are other skills needed to make it to the professional level.

Why does it take so long to become a professional musician?

Let’s take Malcom Gladwell’s famous hypothesis, “10,000 hours to become a Master” from his book, “Outliers” . If we attribute that to only practicing on your own, and say you devote about 3 hours of practice every day (more than what most people do, and less than some), then that takes a little over 9 years.

But practicing by yourself is only the beginning. Learning how to read and interpret music is like learning a second language. Even after you learn how to read, it takes even more study to understand the “mechanics” of written music. Also vital to instruction is training your ears to hear and understand what they are listening to. Then you need to take these separate skills, and integrate them into your practice and performance in real time, and apply all of them to playing with others! It’s not easy, but with time and good training, you can become a complete musician.

3 skills you need to become a professional musician

  1. Playing the instrument: the physical mechanics of performing.
  2. Reading and interpreting the music: being able to identify notes, dynamics, and many other terms and instructions that come with each piece.
  3. Listening: not just hearing what you are doing, but also being able to evaluate how you are performing, and coordinating with others in your ensemble.

In music education, these skills are generally divided into three basic courses:

  1. Private Lessons
  2. Music Theory
  3. Aural Skills, or Sight-Singing

Where can I get these skills?

Taking all of these classes sometime in your training period is critical, and the earlier the better. Many teachers incorporate Music Theory and Aural Skills into their private lessons, as you have to have some of these skills in order to play anything. A few high schools will have a dedicated time towards building these skills, as well as performing in ensembles.

If you do get into a music school in college they will provide you with these classes and the prerequisites. They are usually 3 credit courses with 4 levels each, so you can see how extensive these skills need to be.

However, there is no substitute for taking dedicated classes and private lessons early on in your training. Good news! You can find many online training courses, and you can look for pre-college music schools in your area. Most of these institutions will offer the classes I am talking about, as well as private lessons. At some music schools, they will tell you to take Theory and Sight-Singing  before you start your private lessons. You are never too young, or too old to start!

There are many other skills to acquire, but in order to play professionally, these 3 are essential. If you want to become a professional I suggest you find these courses now!

What other skills are needed?

Let me know what you think in the comments. I will be writing about other skills as well, including what it takes to become a conductor soon! In the meantime, you can listen to my podcast about what a conductor does.