1. They are positive under pressure.
My friend and drummer Derek who plays with a large classic country group demonstrated this at a recent gig we played together. We were playing a a difficult funk beat, and he He aced it. Back in the dressing room he said he’d been nervous about it for the week coming up to the gig. He’d practiced his butt off, then put on his game face and did an amazing job.
Great musicians have practiced handling pressure for years- it’s rare to even know when a great musician is stressing about a part in a song because they’ve learned how to stay calm and bring their A game.
2. They honor the beat.
My friend DJ who runs an indie rock group from Nashville is amazing at locking into the rhythm. No matter what I throw at him, he always manages to lock into the rhythm with every single note on his acoustic guitar. As a result, everything we do together “feels right” even when the notes themselves are a little rusty.
Great musicians are constantly locked into the rhythm, regardless of the instrument they’re playing.
3. They keep it low stress.
My friend Seth is a worship leader at a church in Nashville, and is amazing at handling stress. When someone is late or something goes wrong with a tune, he keeps it low key and instantly diffuses the situation with a combination of thoughtful advice and humor. I know he must feel stressed, but he always manages to keep it from transferring to the musicians around him.
Great musicians stress like everyone, but understand how to keep it from bleeding into their performances and those around them.
4. They listen exceptionally well.
My friend and bassist Christian is amazing at listening to the subtleties of who he’s playing with and reacting musically in a creative ways. Last gig we played together he picked up on a tiny riff I was doing, and played off of it. His part made the entire song.
Great musicians are amazingly gifted at not just hearing their own playing, but picking up on the subtleties of what’s going on around them.
5. They obsessively listen to new music.
My friend and bassist Matt tours with a large CCM group, and he’s always listening to new music. We spent almost a half hour talking about new music last time we met, and dissecting each part of the songs and what we loved about the arrangements.
Great musicians are constantly challenging themselves with new music, and “go deep” with the albums they love.
6. They simplify their gear.
My friend Cornelius is a bassist for a large CCM artist, and he’s sick good at what he does. In my shortsightedness I almost wrote him off the first time I met him- he usually shows up with just his bass, and uses whatever amp they have at the venue. No matter the amp he’s going through, he makes it sound like it cost $10,000 by using amazing technique that he's spent a lifetime building.
Great musicians realize the music should be the focus, not the gear.
7. They practice constantly, but never talk about it.
My friend Luke is a keyboardist for a CCM artist, and his chops are ridiculous. Over coffee the topic of practice came up, and he told me that he’ll regularly do 20 hours of prep work for an hour set with a top artist. He hold me that he feels like he always has another level to get to musically, and without constant practice he felt like he wouldn’t get there.
Great musicians spend hours woodshedding because they love music, not just to explore theoretical musical motifs.
8. They’re humble.
My friend and keyboardist Blair tours with some of the top acts in country and praise music, and you’d never know it, and has a pile of Grammy Awards in a box in his studio closet. Yet every time we hang out he treats me as if I’m a top artist, and he treats everyone from the top industry pros to the waitress at the local coffeeshop the exact same way: with kindness, humility, and respect.
Great musicians are kind to everyone around them, regardless of who you’ve played with or how accomplished you are.
9. They never name drop.
My friend and drummer Steve has played with some of the greatest acts of the 20th century, and I’ve never heard him brag about going on the road with any of them. Instead of bragging about his gigs, he constantly talks about the amazing abilities of the people he works with, and how lucky he is to work with them and how much of a joy they bring to him when they make music together.
Great musicians always downplay their own achievements, and compliment those around them.
10. They have a work ethic that never lets up.
My friend and singer Whitney is fanatical about practicing her parts for gigs, and I’ve never seen her miss a word of a song, even when it’s a massive setlist that we’re playing together. Her trick? Hours of prep time. Many gigs I’ll see her spend 1-2 hours taking hundreds of notes about small details in the songs we’re singing, going far above and beyond what an average musician would spend on a set.
Great musicians aren’t afraid to lock in and go deep with whatever they’re working on, even when they don’t feel like it.