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4 Reasons Why Jazz Musicians Fail

Every day it seems I witness the slow demise of a jazz musician. Whether it be an amateur, or hobbyist player; a college jazz student, or professional, I’ve seen it happen and I’ll see it again.

I’ve watched some of my students unconsciously make the choice to fail, despite my pleading. I’ve agonized in watching some of my friends who were once professional musicians like me, begin to fill out job applications to wait tables, because the gigs just weren’t flowing like they used to. For them I have a deep sympathy, because I know that it’s tough.

This kind of failure I speak of mostly refers to the failure to become a better jazz musician. A lot of aspiring jazz musicians like the idea of being a great player, but when push comes to shove, they just aren’t willing to take the proper steps to do it. They make up excuses, they let fear be the decision maker, and they decide that they can figure it all out on their own. They set themselves up for failure.

I’m also speaking to the small crowd of aspiring professional jazz musicians. The ones that I see fail everyday because they have refused to adapt to the new music market. They don’t understand the modern music industry, and they don’t understand that talent (while important) is only a small percent of what really matters compared to marketing.

Regardless of the situation, I see it happen all of the time. So I think that it is important for me to share with this jazz community 4 failures that I see jazz musicians experience. The first three are failures that any musician wanting to become a better jazz player could make, and the last is aimed particularly at the aspiring professionals. I don’t want to see you make these mistakes, so I hope you read on.

They don’t think they are “good enough”.

I’ve heard it said quite a bit. I’ll go to that jam session when I learn how to improvise a little bit better. I’ll take that next lesson once I’ve mastered this. I’ll go get a gig when I know a few more tunes. I don’t think I can play with them because I’m not good enough. I can’t teach that student because I’m not a “professional”? I can’t accept that gig because what if I fail? 

We come up with constant excuses because we think we aren’t good enough. Don’t get me wrong, you need to spend your due time in the practice room honing your skills. You shouldn’t show up to a jam session or take a gig if you don’t know how to play. But you don’t have to be an expert to start doing these things. In fact doing these things are the best way to help you become a better jazz player. They are essential. Maybe you show up to the jam session and you are the worst player there. Good! That means you are surrounded by better musicians who will push you to higher heights. You don’t know enough tunes for a 3 hour gig? Let the gig force you to learn the tunes.

I remember when I was 18 years old, I told a close friend of mine that I was starting to teach a few beginner guitar students. He was a piano player, and we had both recently started studying jazz together. I asked him why he wasn’t teaching students and his reaction was surprising. He thought that for himself he wouldn’t start teaching students until he felt like he was “more musically mature”. The funny thing to me was he was a very talented piano player. He was unfairly doubting his abilities. As for me, I was more than capable to teach kids and adults how to play open chords on the guitar. In fact I found that teaching helped me become a better player. Somehow teaching and explaining things to people helped me understand my instrument better. I wasn’t a star, I wasn’t prestigious, I didn’t have a college degree at the time. But I had something to offer and it helped me become better for it.

Here’s the deal: you will never be “good enough”. You can practice your entire life and still never feel good enough. But we get better by doing, not by sitting on the sidelines. 

When I got my first music book deal with Hal Leonard, at first I asked myself “why me?” But then I thought “Why not me?”. And by writing that first book, I became a better musician and helped others in the process.

What’s your fear? What are you allowing to hold you back from your true potential?

They are not consistent.

Time and time again I have watched students and friends butcher their jazz playing progress by being inconsistent. The truth is productive practice requires consistency. If you have a great practice session but then don’t follow up with it, you are stabbing yourself in the foot.

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying “slow and steady wins the race”. It’s true. The ones who consistently work on their craft are the ones that improve and the ones that ultimately succeed. Does this mean you have to practice everyday? No. It just means you have to make playing your instrument (and jazz in particular) a part of your life style. If you do this, it will naturally be a regular part of your routine.

Don’t go for grueling long hours of practice. Go for quality and consistent practice sessions. If you are not being consistent you are setting yourself up for failure.

They don’t have a mentor.

Too often I see aspiring jazz musicians (mostly hobbyists) try to go it alone. They love jazz, and they want to be better jazz players, but they have no direction. They wander aimlessly and try to be the YouTube, self-taught musician. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with learning music this way. But ultimately if you want real improvement, you need a mentor. You need someone to guide you, and at the very least tell you what to do in an organized constructive way.

I can’t stress the importance of having a mentor, at least at one point in your musical journey. Everyone needs guidance, and someone to facilitate the process of stimulating progress. If I had not had several mentors throughout my musical career, it’s quite likely I wouldn’t be where I am today.

If you truly want to succeed as a jazz musician (whatever that means for you), make sure you are going to someone for guidance and advice. You can’t do this alone.

They put all their eggs in one basket.

This one is directed at students who are aspiring jazz professionals, and current jazz professionals. The music industry is a brutal place. It’s competitive and it’s harsh. Living here in New York City, I see jazz musicians falling out constantly, because it’s just not economically sustainable. This breaks my heart. I’ve seen some of my friends who are so talented and deserving, fail.

When I analyze why pro jazz musicians fail, I find that it always comes down to the fact that they put their eggs in one basket. No, it’s not because jazz is unpopular music. For example, they may have decided that they wanted to just perform to make a living. Huge mistake. It doesn’t matter what style of music you play, a very tiny percentage of people are able to do this. It may be that they thought they could do a little bit of private teaching on the side so that they could focus all their time on creating art. Wrong. You can’t create art if you can’t gather enough money to pay your bills.

If you want to be a successful musician you have to have multiple different income streams. You also need to focus on education. Jazz education is actually a big industry, so you should get involved. Also be aware that the world has changed. The internet has changed everything, and so maybe you should start working with it. Everyone finds different income streams and ways to use their music to make a living. If you are interested, check out mine. Ultimately you need to be open and think outside the box.

Brent Vaartstra
Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publication "Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar." He's also the host of the music entrepreneurship podcast "Passive Income Musician."


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