The Four Levels of Musicianship

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As in most activities, levels of proficiency can be established. Whether you are speaking of driving skills, golfing ability or Art, each have recognizable levels of ability. This is especially true in music.

Each of the four plateaus represent musicians accomplishments and for this post I will define the lowest level as amateur, the next more advanced as advanced amateur, followed by professional and advanced or Artist level of musical ability.

Each of these levels are easily recognized through several characteristics which I will define below.

Amateur Musician –

A person interested in music with little experience or knowledge but is drawn to it by its general appeal and mystique enters at this level. Most often these are younger individuals who have had contact through close acquaintance, teacher, family member or media.

Because of this casual interest in something new and exciting, the dropout rate is very high. Once the person realizes the amount of time spent in practicing and in some cases the less than expected advancements with respect to time involved, interest quickly subsides, and he/she will be tempted by other momentary attractions.

There are serious amateurs who, through continued hard work do continue to the next level and although an actual percentage of success would be difficult to estimate, I would consider a success rate of 20% would be reasonable at this level.

Examples of successful amateurs would be the average High School Band/ Orchestra member who may continue with his/her voice or instrument through college but after graduation their interest and instrument would be set aside for more carrier opportunities rather than continued advancement in music.

Advanced Amateur Musician

An advanced amateur musician could be described as one who continues through school and after graduation who continues his/her musical activities in such ensembles as church orchestras, community bands/orchestras, dance bands and the occasional solo for local activities such as weddings and fraternal organizations.

Due to the lower level of expectations with these groups, the advanced amateur is not truly dedicated to ridged practice habits and conditions. Their practice routine most often begins immediately before rehearsals and performances. In other words, practice time is spent only frequently enough to get by with these lower-level musical requirements.

Musicians at this level many times consider themselves as "playing musicians" which will impress their friends without allotting much time to practice. These are the individuals who often approach more highly skilled musicians with comments such as "I play trumpet to" or "I’m a musician also", but when offered an instrument, their usual response is, "no thanks, I haven’t played in a long time".

Most often these performers overestimate their ability and when challenged, withdraw all of their self-bestrode accolades. I find this characteristic the most irritating. Having a little bit of experience and knowledge can be the most difficult type of person to work with.

Professional Musician-

It is easy to characterize this level of musicianship for a professional uses his/her musical ability to actually earn a living performing and/or teaching music full time. There is a wide spectrum of musicians in this category, ranging from the members of full time but low quality band or orchestra and lower level chamber ensemble to persons performing regularly in major/high quality ensembles around the world. Professional musicians would also include those working in the recording industry, television, service bands/orchestras etc.

Most often performers at this level have, as we say, "have paid their dues" which means they have dedicated time and energy for most of their life preparing themselves for the requirements needed to achieve and keep a position in a professional ensemble. Sustaining professional musicianship requires constant upkeep on ones high level of performance .

Advanced Professional Musician-

This designation is for the "top of the crop".

The list of advanced professionals could represent the top 20% of all professional musicians. The performing ability of these abnormally gifted performers would seem to shine above all human capabilities. These are the most gifted of the gifted in their field. This would not only represent their technical skills, for some are recognized as the top in their field for innovations. An example of one such person would be Miles Davis. I place Miles in this category not for his technical ability on the trumpet, for there are many who outshine him on technique. His innovative achievements in Jazz set him far above the usual professional performer. Miles was there in Bop, instrumental in the establishment of Cool, a leading exponent of Fusion and if he had lived longer would have continued to establish DoBop (BeBop with Rap). Miles could play but more importantly, Miles could and did influence history.

Some at the top of the professional musician ladder might have had issues. Again, I use Miles as an example of this characteristic. Miles has been criticized for his strong racial views, but to most knowledgeable musicians, this characteristic is overlooked because of his tremendous contributions to Jazz.

I hope this post has at least made you think as to your own placement in our family of musicians. You might be wondering where I would place myself in these list. All I can say is that at different periods in my life, I would have been considered a member of all levels with the exception of the Advanced Professional. I never could and never will be anything close to those gifted musicians.