Rules of the Road

During the 22-month “virus vacation” when Anne and I spent more nights in our own bed than we had in the previous 10 years of our marriage combined, I was constantly whining about how cramped was our house, how small was our 1/3-acre patch, how near were the neighbors, how the same was everything day in and day out. Sure, there were things to discover once you were in the home for which you were thankful for more than 18-36 hours at a stretch—what needed painting; what needed cleaning out; what wall was about to cave in: the usual. As Wanderlust all but consumed me, I was counting the days until we would be free to travel the globe once again in search of hot sounds and adventure.

The sedentary days are over; we started traveling to gigs small and large in mid-January and didn’t return to Mystic until mid-March. A week later, after two intense shows within driving distance, we were back on the road. We’re older now…everything takes longer and seems a little more complicated and daunting. It’s still great, and the wish I should’ve been careful I’d wished for has more than come true. But I can look at this return to near-constant movement through a new lens. Just what compels my wife and me, and other full-time musicians, to “hit the road” and earn a “living”? [NB. I’m not saying we can’t meet expenses; anyone who tells you they can’t meet expenses hasn’t been opening their eyes: they’re everywhere!]

Hot Jazz Jubile

At this point, I’m surmising you’re still reading for one of three reasons: you want to take a crack at “going” full-time, either retiring from or replacing your current vocation to feed your music “habit,” even perhaps contemplating living the dream of “life on the road” as a musician; you want to hear sordid tales of the trials of being on the road 85% of the year; or, more prosaically, there’s nothing good to stream at the moment…as a reward for hanging in up to this point I’ll now share my completely biased criteria for being a Full-Time Touring Musician.

Being a Full-Time Touring Musician means:

***Being well-known in remote locations, far from home, but basically anonymous in your own hometown.


***Having many close friends around the world with whom you spend precious little time but with whom you share intense, supportive relationships while, again, not knowing people from, or near, home all that well, certainly no one you would call a close friend.

***the notion of a vacation, what the Europeans call a holiday, is staying at home for a few quiet days without letting ANYONE know you are there and without giving in to immediately responding to the constant rings, pings, whistles, and splats YOU yourself have set up on your innumerable electronic devices.

Being a full-time musician means:

***Trying to expand your repertoire during your 18 hours at home in between engagements even as you are prepping for that huge concert at the end of the week where you need to include the A-list, well-worn material that got you hired in the first place.

***Endeavoring to keep track of the details regarding the unique requirements each booking presents, for example: car rentals, hotel rooms, outfits—both onstage and off—requests from the promoter of pieces to play—or NOT to play—and, when on tour, calculating the time it will take to navigate the distance from one gig to the next, from one hotel to the next gig, and then on to a new hotel for your ten days of one-nighters beginning next week, while simultaneously responding to requests to book your act, with all of the details just mentioned previously in the mix, for an engagement in November 2024.


***Lamenting that the phone never stops ringing and the emails never cease, while at the same time fearing, nay knowing, that one day they will.

***No 401k, no paid vacations, no weekends, no bankable hours, and the need to live in the moment while concurrently looking years into the future and every second in between.

***Prepping for that recording while making sure all the other musicians are lined up and know their parts, getting the artwork and liner notes done, paying the royalties on your selections and wrestling with the notion of continuing to produce physical CDs when even Grandmothers (and everyone younger) seem more interested in streaming the music rather than cluttering up their homes with more stuff.


Now so far, the picture I paint of the full-time musician is admittedly bleak. The following quote, erroneously attributed to gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, cynically sums up the whole affair: “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”

No matter who actually composed that statement, it represents the worst possible scenario in describing life in “the business,” or, as we are exploring here, life as a full-time musician.

So why do it? Why put yourself through the constant uprooting, the dozens of hours of sometimes daily travel crammed into a seat on a car, train or plane, designed for a two-foot, malnourished six year-old, the limited (if any) decent food choices, the unrelenting barrage of disjointed noise assaulting you from public place to public place, the sense of complete and utter disassociation with your current surroundings, the need to unpack from one seven-week tour on the same night you are looking for those socks you need for the five-week tour you are about to leave for at 6 am the next morning, the unending leaps from time zone to time zone, all the while hounded by the persistent fear that all of it will suddenly come to an end?


Because you LOVE it. You love the adventure, the beautiful “never-the-same-thing” once-ness of it all; you love the opportunity to share music that grabbed you when you were a kid and forever made you its slave, to hear an audience react with such pleasure to your performance, to see so many smiles, to know that your dedication, your endurance, your discipline, yes, perhaps even your God-given talent, has touched someone’s heart and made their step a little lighter, you love the places you get to visit and people you get to meet that and whom would never have come into your life had you chosen a different path.

You are ABLE to keep loving it by choosing positivity over negativity, by choosing gratitude over anger or frustration, by choosing acceptance over stress…at least on your best days.

AND, in self-defense, by having a few rules to keep your travel aim true, which I share with you now from our experiences over the previous 23 years:

Rule #1: Always check hotel room and rental car prices from week to week leading up to your travel; they often will decrease as the date gets closer.

Rule #2: Book your flights as early as possible and stick to one airline, or its affiliates, whenever you can; your status (and comfort) level will grow over time.

A Japanese Melody Road, the system of highways play music for you if you drive at the correct speed.

Rule #3: Always treat the time zone to which you are traveling as the “real” time. Don’t give in to your inner clock. Upon arrival at your destination, don’t eat or sleep when your body tells you to: only do so at the appropriate time in your current location. Jet lag will be dramatically diminished, if not erased, if you stick to this concept.

Rule #4: Don’t judge a hotel by its lobby: check out the room first. And if it looks like what we call a “Don’t-take-your-shoes-off” room, either request a change of room from the front desk, or a change of hotel from your promoter, or leave your shoes on….yes, even in bed.

All the rules I just shared with you are designed to make the traveling as easy and pleasant as possible. This final rule is by the far the most important one: adhering to it will avert tragedy:

Rule #5: NEVER, EVER get out of bed in the middle of the night until you remember where the bathroom is located…closets, hot tubs, balconies…these are NOT valid substitutes for the real thing.

While there are no guarantees, your willingness to heed the content offered herein will greatly increase your chances of survival as a full-time traveling musician. We’ll look for you out there!

Jeff Barnhart is an internationally renowned pianist, vocalist, arranger, bandleader, recording artist, ASCAP composer, educator and entertainer. Visit him online Email: [email protected]

Or look at our Subscription Options.