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When you desire to improve upon a skill, regardless of what the skill is, consistency is key. Practicing your instrument for 90 minutes every day will produce much better results than trying to fit six hours of practice into two days per week. This holds true for every aspect of the music industry. Consistent, daily work will be much more efficient and keep you much more sane than trying to fit a week's worth of work into your single day off.
I've got a number of tasks that I try to invest time into on a daily basis. Though everybody's priorities and daily schedules will vary, here are a few ideas to get you thinking about what you should be doing every day.
1. Play your instrument
If you want to be a professional musician, you've got to get your hands on your instrument every day!
There are plenty of folks who just want to use their instrument as a creative outlet, as well as players who don't enjoy "practicing" in an organized way. There are plenty of people in this camp who have made music their career. However, even if you aren't into organized practicing, you should still get your hands on your instrument in some way on a daily basis. When it comes to playing, the phrase "use it or lose it" absolutely applies! Just as all muscles atrophy when they aren't used, your hands and muscle memory will begin to deteriorate when you start neglecting your instrument for long periods of time.
If you're in a rut, or are unsure of what to practice, there are plenty of resources on the internet that can help you to figure out where to go next (ideally, seeking out a private instructor will drastically reduce the frequency of this situation). If you aren't into serious practicing, there are plenty of ways to have a good time just playing your instrument. You could always just sit with it and see what comes out; many great songs have started this way. Or you could just work through some of your band's material or try to write some new stuff. As long as you're playing something, you should be able to keep your chops in working order.
2. Critically listen to music
Listening to music regularly is essential for serious musicians! I'm talking about real, deep, critical listening, as opposed to listening in the background of something else you've got going on.
There are a huge number of things to be gained by listening to music. First of all, it's enjoyable! Isn't the reason you want to do music as a career because you love music? Listening to really incredible musicians is probably what inspired you to want to play or write in the first place. If you're in a rut or feeling uninspired, it might be that you just need to listen to more music!
Of course, listening can inspire you in more specific ways as well. You might hear a particular lyric that gives you a burst of inspiration for your own music, or perhaps you'll hear some beautiful chord or transition that you just have to figure out. Maybe you hear an incredible solo that you connect with and want to learn, or even just a funky sound that you want to learn how to make. Learning things from recordings is hugely helpful in the development of your ear. You can't go wrong – listen to music every day!
3. Tackle your emails
The music industry moves fast. Oftentimes, if you leave somebody hanging, you can miss out on some serious opportunities. If you aren't the type of person who enjoys communicating and is slow to respond to texts and emails, you're going to have a hard time making things work in this business.
I've definitely been guilty of this at times but have since found a solution. Pick a time every day (I prefer mornings after waking up) to sit down and respond to any emails that need attending to. If you let them pile up, this could take forever. However, if you spend a little time every day responding to messages, you should be able to easily take care of them all within 30 to 60 minutes. This way, everybody who messages you is getting a response within 24 hours. That may not be ideal, depending on the nature of the email, but it's preferable to just letting the message sit forever.
4. Take care of business
If you want to do music as a career, then you've got to treat it like one. In other words, you have to show up for work if you want to keep the job!
Whether or not you have a day job, think of music as its own job. If the only "work" you're doing is showing up to rehearsals and gigs, you're probably putting in less than 10 hours a week. That wouldn't get you very far in any other field, and it's not going to get you far in music.
If you want it badly enough, you can find the time and energy to make it happen. Clock in to your "music job" every day and try to get something done, whether it's contacting new promoters or venues, following up on leads for cool opportunities, reaching out to new potential connections, writing new material, or researching better ways to approach your marketing strategy. The difference between five hours and 15 hours is huge, and if you're working smart, you'll start seeing real results as you put in more time.
Solo artists have a ton on their plate, but if you're in a band, you can be even more efficient. If you could only handle 10 hours a week doing your "band job," results might come slower than you'd like. However, if everybody in your band puts in 10 hours a week, that stacks up to your band being a full-time job! If you're in a band, divide and conquer. Figure out what the strengths of each member are, and let everybody take a different responsibility in order to work quickly and efficiently.
5. Take one small action in service of your bigger goals
This goes hand in hand with getting business done, but stretches beyond it. Taking care of tasks associated with your music career can seem like a total grind if you forget why you're doing it in the first place!
Take time to regularly review your short- and long-term goals and decide your daily plans of action with those goals in mind. Also, periodically take the time to reevaluate your goals. Are they still relevant to what you ultimately want to achieve? Is it time to change them?
Your goals and actions won't always be business related, of course. Though the business stuff is vital, try not to let it completely bog you down! You might have goals that revolve around practicing and becoming a better player, or getting better at writing catchy hooks. Whatever your goals may be, take time to work towards them on a daily basis.
Editor's note – a little bit of additional advice on this: Make sure your to-do list consists of specific, actionable steps, or you'll find yourself procrastinating because you haven't actually taken a few moments to determine what your next actions truly are. For example, "get better at writing hooks," as noted above, is a goal – it's not an action step that belongs on your to-do list. The questions you have to ask yourself now are: How can you get better at writing hooks? What can you do right now to start making that happen? Perhaps "research songwriting books on Amazon" is the action step you want to take today to achieve your goal of getting better at writing hooks.
Every time you complete an action in service of a project or goal, make sure you always sit down and figure out what the next action has to be so that you keep up your momentum! This will help you put your day-to-day into perspective so that you can achieve a nice balance of focusing on the tasks right in front of you as well as the big-picture view.
Dylan Welsh is a freelance musician and music journalist based in Seattle, WA. He currently plays in multiple Seattle bands, interns at Mirror Sound Studio, and writes for the Sonicbids blog. Visit his website for more information.