by Dr. Paul Guise (originally published in 2005)

is an arts consultant, conductor and music educator living in Winnipeg, MB, Canada.
Check out his website at

As suggested in last month’s column, there are a variety of reasons why all musicians need to learn professional skills. Given that estimates put the number of piano teachers in the U.S.A. alone at approximately 500,000, it seems reasonable to suggest there is a large pool of professional musicians (performers, teachers, composers, therapists, etc.) around the world who could gain from well-designed music business programs. But because there are very few educators who are striving to fill the need, many musicians are left to their own devices. There are currently three main ways to gain business skills as a musician: trial-and-error, mentoring with an established professional, and formal education. While each method has its fans, none is perfect, especially for musicians; this is why we usually combine aspects of all three approaches in day-to-day life. Having said that, this column will focus on trial-and-error, with the other two areas getting more attention in coming months.

Trial-and-error is the oldest of all educational methods, and can produce acceptable results if you can afford to make some mistakes. For musicians who already have a stable job (or are independently wealthy), trial-and-error may work, although it can result in business skills that, while effective, are not efficient. Why waste several years’ worth of time and money trying to reinvent the wheel? One likely reason for choosing trial-and-error may be that it is the only approach available to you, due to professional and/or academic isolation, although this reason has been lessened in recent years due to advances in communications, especially the internet. All that having been said, trial-and-error can be an effective learning tool for musicians who keep a few things in mind.

The first key to success with trial-and-error is to learn from mistakes, and to do so as quickly as possible. Note that it’s hard to improve if you can’t remember what you did (right or wrong): invest in a pen and paper, and keep meticulous records, especially as you are starting out. If you choose to take notes electronically, invest in good software and back everything up as often as possible. Make sure you can account for every penny you earn, and pay equal attention to accounting for all of the money you spend. As you may already know, self-employed musicians can write off a lot of things at tax time, so don’t throw away receipts for anything remotely related to your business; this could include printed/recorded music, instruments, gas receipts, accommodations while on the road, studio space, even a haircut or that shiny green tux you save for “special occasions”. If you don’t know what to do with these receipts, contact an accountant and/or get a good book on Canadian tax law. Tax time is not trial-and-error time.

As important as keeping track of your money is keeping track of your time, including appointments, lessons, gigs, cancellations, etc. This will help you make the most effective use of your time by showing you where and when things are happening. For example, a musician may have students scheduled in a few blocks of time, or the students may be spread more broadly throughout the week. Learn what schedule works best for you! Several years ago I taught in a private studio, Monday afternoon through Thursday evening. This gave me time away from teaching on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday morning, freeing up important evenings and weekends for other gigs (or even a social life!). But I know other teachers who prefer to have a lot of prep time between students and spread their schedules out accordingly. Similarly, performers need to be available when there are gigs, so make sure your schedule fits your current and long-term goals. Finally, write down every single commitment you have and don’t miss anything! The words “I forgot” are a lousy way to end your musical career.

Another approach is to supplement your trial-and-error with research. Read journals and magazines, search the internet, talk to colleagues, attend other people’s concerts/studios, and don’t forget to read the notes you’ve been taking all along. Finally, plan for the future. Think about whether your hard-earned money would be better spent on a new instrument, some flashy marketing materials, or the services of an accountant. For that matter, try to determine where your time is best spent in order to develop your career over the long haul. Should you play a Tuesday night gig, stay home and practice, or take a night class?

Thinking long-term and planning for the future can help you get the most out of your trial-and-error approach to being a professional musician. Still, musicians would be well advised to combine their own experience with mentoring and formal courses in order to become truly professional musicians – it’s one of the best business investments you can make!