If you love music and enjoy diving into the artistic process of creating your own music, you may have thought about becoming a professional musician someday. Breaking into the music industry as a standalone star or band member isn’t easy — but, fortunately, there are many other roles you can consider. For example, you may want to explore the possibility of becoming a session musician.
What is a session musician? And what is the process of how to become a session musician? Read this career guide to find out and begin planning your own career pathway.
What Does a Session Musician Do?
Creating music is often a collaborative effort. Recording artists come together during studio sessions to create music for albums, digital downloads, commercials, documentaries, movie soundtracks and more. Music producers and sound engineers work together with recording artists to nail down the desired sound and build the song.
Another important member of the team is the session musician (or musicians — as there may be more than one working in the studio at any given time). A session musician is an artist who backs up the main recording artist. By definition, session musicians are not permanent members of a band or other music group. Rather, they are back-up artists who play an instrument (or several) or contribute back-up vocals for a track. However, many session musicians also find success as band members or solo artists in their own right.
Sometimes, session musicians are invited to go on tour with an artist or band. The role of a session musician on tour is similar to their role in the recording studio. That is, they provide back-up musical support to the main recording artist or band, but are not considered official members of the act.
Some session musicians are hired by recording studios and record labels, but most are independent contractors who work on a gig basis. They may sometimes receive royalties from recordings, although it’s more common to earn an industry-standard flat rate for their work.
How To Become a Session Musician
If the idea of being a session musician appeals to you, you can begin preparing for your future right now. If you’re still in high school, spend as much time as possible practicing your preferred musical instrument(s). If you only play one instrument today, consider starting lessons in a second instrument tomorrow.
At school, join as many music-related groups as possible. For instance, audition for the high school band or orchestra, hop aboard musical stage productions and participate in any relevant clubs.
You might think that aspiring musicians don’t need college degrees — but missing out on higher education in music is one mistake that has ruined countless careers. It is highly unlikely that playing an instrument for a few years in high school will give you the advanced skills and music theory knowledge necessary to build a career in music.
In college, you’ll focus entirely on refining your craft and developing your knowledge of music theory. You’ll spend hours practicing and rehearsing, and you will have many opportunities to perform your music on campus — and elsewhere in the community, if you ask around. It can be scary at first, but this kind of experience is the best way to grow as a musician — and the only way to become a professional.
College will also give you the opportunity to begin building a professional portfolio of music performances. Plus, you’ll be able to network with other musicians — most successful music careers were built through networking. In short, you’ll definitely need to plan on earning a bachelor’s degree in music after high school.
Earn Your Undergraduate Piano Performance Degree
After high school, the first step in the process of how to become a session musician is to earn a music degree. Session musicians often play more than one instrument, but you’ll likely choose a degree that focuses on a single instrument. A piano performance degree is a great option because the piano is a highly versatile instrument that can play a starring role in almost any genre of music.
As with other bachelor’s degrees, it will take about four years of full-time study to earn a piano performance degree — and because the curriculum requires extensive in-person instruction and performances, a piano performance degree cannot be earned entirely online — in addition to online the curriculum, you can expect to be an on-campus student.
The specific curriculum will vary from one program to the next, but in general, you may study the following topics:
- Music theory, including the structure of music with a look at harmony, melody, form and rhythm, as well as skill development
- The history and development of music through the ages, studying the principal composers of each major era
- The fundamentals and techniques of conducting, including baton technique, left hand technique, non-verbal communication, score reading and transpositions
- Scoring techniques and music arranging for orchestras, with a look at scoring for woodwinds, brasses, percussions, voices and strings
- Fundamentals of teaching the piano and managing a studio
Music students can expect a blend of traditional classroom instruction (e.g., reading and writing assignments), instrument instruction and performance requirements. It’s customary for undergrad music students to spend a great deal of time rehearsing and performing. Depending on your program, you may give both on- and off-campus performances.
If you intend to pursue a career in music, make sure to record each performance you give as a student. These performances will go into your professional portfolio, which you can use to advertise your services as a session musician.
How to Break Into the Industry as a Session Musician
After graduating with your piano performance degree, you will need a great deal of patience and persistence to break into the music industry. However, your first gig may lead to additional work, especially if you impress the artists with whom you work. Use these tips to get your career as a session musician off to a promising start:
- Become a familiar face in the local music scene and spend time getting to know other music artists.
- Play at open mic nights and treat each one as an audition for a gig.
- Practice your craft every day.
- Continue to grow your professional portfolio, and advertise it by posting music clips and videos on your own personal website and social media pages.
- Reach out to local recording studios and provide them with your contact information and links to your work.
- Network with every industry professional you can find, including producers, sound engineers and fellow session musicians.
Essential Skills and Characteristics of a Session Musician
Finding success as a session musician depends on many factors, including the following:
- Building a reputation for reliability, creativity and artistic vision
- Being known as a consummate professional who is easy to work with and artistically flexible
- Knowing many different music styles and genres of music and, ideally, being able to play more than one instrument — and better still, sing
- Becoming familiar with your local music scene
- Being proactive about promoting yourself and treating each performance and gig like an audition for your next one
As you progress in your career, it can also be helpful to acquire the equipment necessary for a basic home recording studio. Today, collaboration is often done virtually, and session musicians may be asked to use their home recording studios to add some finishing touches to a recording.
You can begin preparing for an exciting career in the music industry when you apply for enrollment at Grand Canyon University. The music department at the College of Arts and Media challenges music students to refine their skills and unleash their creativity, while also giving them many opportunities to showcase their skills during live performances. Explore GCU's many degree options for musicians, including the Bachelor of Arts in Music with an Emphasis in Piano Performance degree program.
Approved by the Dean of the College of Arts and Media on Nov. 1, 2022.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.