4 Different Types of Musicians

by Eddie Lewis

I don’t think I originally planned on making this a “behind the wheel” video, but that’s what I just decided right now, since it is Wednesday and I don’t have one of those for today. And, this is a subject I only wanted to hash out. I’m not done thinking about this yet and there will be a more formal video on the topic later.

Different Types of Musicians

In this video I talk about four different types of musicians. This is an important topic for me, as a teacher, because I teach my students differently depending on which type of want to become.

And that reminds me, I use language when I speaking about this that makes it sound like I am talking about the people. I’m not. This is not some sort of musician personality test. I’m not saying you either ARE one or you ARE another. No. I am talking about roles.

All musicians can be all four of these types if they want, just like a man can be a husband and a father. It’s not his “personality” to be a husband. It’s the role he plays.

Of course, that said, some personalities might make better fathers? Right? And in the same sense, some personalities can be better at different types of musician roles.

My Experience on Both Sides

There are two main types of musicians and the second type can be divided into two other types. The first two main types are workers and artists.

What’s the difference between a worker and an artist? I have been both, but I will quickly admit, always, that the majority of my income as a musician has been as a worker. And there’s a reason for that. Workers make more money in the beginning. Being a worker is a much easier way to make money on your instrument. Not only is there less work involved, but the worker gigs I’ve played over the course of my career have always paid as much as three or four times as much as the artist gigs. If it was the other way around, I would have probably done mostly the artist thing all these years.

Now, since we’re talking about money, I should also say that the potential for income is much higher for the artists. They begin their careers making peanuts, a lot less than the workers make, but if they keep up with it and do the business, then there is a potential for a lot more income than what the workers could ever make.

I know this from experience. I took the worker thing to its local limit. There were years when I was getting all the best trumpet gigs and doing as many as twelve of them per week. I think in those days the lowest number of weekly gigs I had was about four. Imagine how devastated I was when I realized that was the ceiling and that I would never be able to make more than what I already was. All that work and I was still living beneath the poverty line.

That’s why the majority of today’s worker trumpet players have day jobs. I know that sounds like a contradiction. Yes, what I said is still true. The individual worker gigs still pay better than the individual artist gigs. But as an artist, there is no ceiling on how much you can make. As an artist, you begin your career making peanuts, but if you manage the business well, you don’t have to be stuck there.

Anyway, I didn’t mean to write about all of that before I wrote about the differences between the Worker and Artist. But hey, this is good content, so I will just restructure it. Now let’s talk about those more musical differences.

Types of Musicians - Workers: Ed Gerlach orchestra setting up for a gig.
This is one of the best groups of dedicated “worker musicians” that I ever had the honor of working with. This is the Ed Gerlach orchestra setting up for a gig in a local hospital in Houston, TX.

The Worker Musician

What is a worker musician?

The worker shows up to the gig, does a great job, gets paid and goes home. The better workers are ready for more different types of gigs. Here are the skills that a worker musician needs:

  • Sight Reading
  • Lots of Repertoire
  • Playing by Ear
  • Improvisation
  • Transposition

The two main necessary skills you need to be a great worker are sight reading and learning lots and lots of tunes.

I’m not going to go into all of these right now. You can watch the video for that. But when you look at the list of necessary skills above, I hope you can see what kind of player the workers are.

This is something I like to say in this context…

When you go to see your favorite artist in a live concert, and you look on stage behind the artist, there are usually between five and twenty worker musicians backing the artist. If you could interview them and take an inventory of their skills, both the artist and the workers, you would soon learn that the no name workers hidden in the shadows behind the artist are greatly more skilled than the famous artist could ever hope to be.

The Artist

The artist doesn’t need so many skills. The artist doesn’t need to be able to sight read because he’s always going to be performing his own music. Even if he’s performing standards, he wont need to learn over a thousand tunes to be a successful artist. An artist can get started with twenty tunes.

The artist doesn’t need to learn how to transpose. In fact, it is the artists who make it necessary for the workers to transpose because the artist always chooses what key the music will be performed in…. always a key that flatters the artist. And rightly so. People are paying big money to hear great music.

Being an artist requires a lot more business work. The artist is a business owner and has to concern himself with branding and marketing and all that same stuff that a small business owner must focus on. As an artist you are a business owner and your music is your product.

This is not to say that there is no business involved with being a worker. Of course there is. But you can’t really compare the two. It’s safe to say that a good artist is doing at least twelve times the amount of business as the workers are. Easily!

Entertainers and Virtuosi

The artist type of musician can be broken down into two types. These are the entertainer and the virtuoso.

I want to make it clear here that you don’t have to be either one of these. That’s why I say there are four types of musicians. You can be JUST an artist. You don’t have to be an entertainer or a virtuoso.

I think the labels here are obvious. An entertainer uses his music to entertain the audience. I can tell you that this is not the kind of musician I will ever be. It’s not that I don’t like entertaining. It has more to do with the fact that what I think is entertaining is so different from the rest of the world that making a living doing this would just be very frustrating.

Personally, I lean more toward the virtuoso side of this split. Kind of. Really, my artist gigs tend to be just artistic. While I do display a degree of virtuosity on my artist gigs, that virtuosity is not in the spot light. So that would put my stuff more on the “just an artist” side of the artist split.

Types of Musicians and Your Lessons

Traditional music education (at least for band instruments) treats all musicians like workers. That was great up to forty years ago when you could make a decent living as a worker musician.

Today the only way to make a decent living as a worker is to get into the military bands or make a symphony. The universities are pumping out so many musicians each year who are trained to be workers, tens of thousands of them in the USA alone, every year, and the number of jobs is dwindling, not growing. Speaking in economic terms, supply is far out of balance with demand. For this reason, the pay for a lot of gigs is going down.

Most of my students are never going to be full-timers. You have to be full-time to develop the skill it takes to be a worker musician. But to get your foot in the door as an artist doesn’t require nearly as much musical skill. If you find someone to split your first concert with, you could get buy with only half a dozen tunes.

As an artist, it’s YOUR show, so it doesn’t matter what kind of vibrato you have or how fast you play or anything like that. It’s not a contest. What matters in your performance as an artist is that you connect with the audience.

Because I know most of my students will never become workers, I teach them to become artists. My students are not trying to learn hundreds of tunes. We do still work on their sight reading, because I believe being able to read does broaden your possibilities as an artist. But there is no need as an artist to master sight reading the way the workers must. An artist’s livelihood does not depend on his ability to sight read.

Can you see why I make a distinction between the different types of musicians? It helps me determine what and how to teach my students. I don’t just make them do all the stuff that traditionaly music pedagogy requires. Most of that stuff is no longer appropriate and only serves as a distraction from most of the students of today who just want to play the music they like and do it the way they like. These are students who will never be “good enough” to make a symphony, but they never wanted to make a symphony in the first place.

  1. Mary

    Yes I can see how this philosophy works. My comment is about its application.

    As a worship leader almost all the music being played is written for C instruments. There are some arrangements around but on the whole you are playing from a score that is written for non transposing instruments. The exception is the guitar which often has a capo setting on the score as well as the sounding chord. It is therefore very time consuming if the musicians have been taught as artists and have never learned to do the basic transposition for their instrument.

    I agree that they don’t need to be taught as I was to transpose into any key, but if they play a B flat instrument, for instance, then they do need to know how to transpose up a tone to play with other people. They don’t need to be able to do that at sight but they do at least need to know how to do it on paper.

    And yes I’m partly saying this because if they can’t do this it’s my time that gets used, but I’m also saying it because what I hear a lot is … “I’d love to play with you but …”

    Of course, sometimes it’s an excuse but most times it’s a real sense that they won’t be welcome … which by the way isn’t true. I will do the work to enable them, but it would have been so much easier for them if they had been taught how and practiced the skill at the point when they were doing most of their learning and it was just another skill rather than this BIG hurdle.

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