What does it mean to be a musician?

It's difficult to answer this question. Is a musician just someone who plays an instrument? Perhaps, someone simply in the music business? What about Musicologists - people who study everything about the history and quite possibly theory of music, but may have limited playing skills? Or is it just someone who's interested in music?

As a jazz musician, I find it hard to believe what kind of person is being considered a musician. Today, it seems as though any person with a few bucks can set themselves up with a guitar and an amp, and immediately transform into a "musician." Most music stores print ads about how their store is a one-stop shopping place for musicians. For musicians. That means all kinds, yes? Yet upon entering, I find myself blinded by the number of guitars I'm faced with, and shocked at the severely underdeveloped size of the band department.

I find this to be not only near-insulting to me as a saxophonist, but also a screaming commentary on the music business and industry. The message that comes across is that not only is good music guitar-related, but that the other instruments (clarinet, trumpet, etc.) which take real skill and musicianship to master, are somehow separate and less important. What is someone who is new to music supposed to think when s/he walks into one of these stores? These stores push guitars and drums, and hardly even expose a music newcomer to other instruments. The people who happened to be interested in other instruments walk in having to request to see those instruments, because far be it for a sales rep to show them a saxophone or a clarinet!

A couple things I want to mention here:
  1. This does not apply to serious jazz/classical guitarists, as I have never been less than amazed at the amount of beautiful music created by these musicians.
  2. I realize that I haven't mentioned piano/keyboard players. I must save the way I feel about that for another node. For the sake of this writeup, let's assume that those people apply to the instrumentalist/band category, even though they are increasing in number (as you can see - look at the growing selection of pianos!).

My real beef is really more aimed towards what popular music has become and how those who create it are called musicians, not so much that a given music store carries X number of guitars. I'm merely pointing out the correlation between the two.

I think what people need to realize is the difference between a musician, music hobbyist, and an employee.

The Employee
An employee, as we all know, is someone who is paid by an employer to render some sort of service. There was an article not too long ago in the New York Times about such "employees" in the music business. Using their computers and other recording equipment (mixers and such), these employees create background music tracks for songs. These background tracks normally include some sort of drum loop, samples of other songs, and electronic replicas of piano/string/percussion sounds. There is very little skill needed in creating one of these background tracks. Hopefully, this employee has at least a basic knowledge of music and theory (is s/he a musician?), and is using that knowledge when creating these tracks on his or her computer in his or her basement/garage. Unfortunately, today, these employees are incorrectly touted as "songwriters" or even more incorrectly "composers" (of course, not everyone who is a songwriter and/or composer is an "employee"). Often times (especially today), this background music is applied to a pop singer, who sings into a microphone that is connected to a device called a "pitch correction" machine (PCM, I'll call it). As its name implies, the PCM changes the pitch of a singers voice to be exactly in tune. Of course, the singer has to be close in pitch, but pop singers today don't even have to sing in tune! (They just have to dance well and have pretty faces, it seems.)

The Music Hobbyist
This is the kind of person I mentioned before - the average person who can walk into a music store, buy a guitar & amp, and walk out, titling him/herself a musician. These people are not musicians. Oh sure, they can buy a book, learn a few chords, and even sit in on jam sessions at clubs. Once they can do that, the person is a musician, right? Right - in the same way that once the average person buys a cookbook, hat, and apron, and becomes a chef. Again, this is not to say that people who fall into this category (and there are a lot of them!) are not musical, or are somehow not entitled to play the instrument, they are simply not musicians. Which is a perfect segue...

The Musician
Ahhh yes. The point. Up to now, I have been taking a rather snobbish or elitist stance towards musicians/music practitioners. I realize this, and I do sincerely apologize to anyone who I might have upset with my opinion. Keep in mind, however, that music is my job - my life. To some extent, I can't help but have that kind of approach simply because music is such a part of me.
Anyway, back to the definition of a musician...
Being a musician is no less professional than being a doctor, or a lawyer, or an artist. Sure, everyone jokes around about the music majors in college and how they have no future. The fact of the matter is, the above-average music major can quite possibly end up making more money and being happier than the naive person who originally poked fun at the music major. Musicians are the people who are dedicated to the mastery of music. That right there is really the dividing line between a real and non-musician. Real musicians are so driven by their love of music that they don't accept anything less than mastery of their instrument of choice, and an understanding of music that is so deep, they are able to use it as a form of communication. Their dream or goal in life is to be happy earning a living in music, much like someone else whose dream is to become the best damn doctor the world's ever seen. This is the quintessential musician.

So when I see these "employees" and music hobbyists being called and labeled "musicians" (again, not that there aren't any exceptions), it really gets under my skin! Since it means so much more to be a musician then just being able to play blues licks on a guitar, or to be able to record a few tracks on a computer, I (and other musicians as well) feel disappointed when seeing the title "musician" be tossed around like a frisbee.

Just a few closing words on those music stores: I do like that, even though they steer music newbies towards guitars and drums, they do spark interest in music. That's great. Regardless of what I have said, I wish everybody would really learn an instrument of some kind - I think a few of the world's problems could be solved that way. But anyway...
The stores do have their merits. And it's not like you can't truly enjoy music or play music unless you are a musician. It's not that at all. It's the way they call Kenny G a jazz saxophone player. It's the way they call Keanu Reeves an actor (hehe - he's great, but needs work). It's the way they call Britney Spears or Mandy Moore a musician. It's like prime rib well-done. It's like raaaaaiiiiin on your wedding day...

As I said, I apologize for upsetting anyone with my opinion. Thank you for listening.