"Your attitude is what will get you hired again. I strongly believe in that. I've hired musicians that are as strong as others, but they have a better attitude when they're coming to work. And I was like, I wish I had this one person because they're better, but I don't want to deal with all this drama and stress and negativity. So, I rather have this guy that is one, much less. But it's like a beautiful, great attitude. Everybody's happy to be with him." ~Ion Zanca

Successful Musicians Podcast Episode 22


Interviewee: Ion Zanca

Interviewer: Jason Tonioli


Hey, this is Jason Tonioli. I’m a piano player that grew up believing it wasn’t possible to earn a living and support a family with music. I’ve proven that idea was wrong, and I’ve met hundreds of other people who have found success with their music. This podcast features stories of musicians who have found their own personal version of success and fulfillment in both music and life. This podcast is meant to inspire musicians and help them believe in their abilities and motivate them to share their talents with others. This is the Successful Musicians Podcast.


 Jason: Okay. Welcome to The Successful Musicians podcast. Today, I’m super excited to talk to Ion Zanca. Ion has been playing the violin for a long time. He’s the founding member of the Dallas String Quartet. He’s had a chance to perform all over the place. You’ve performed for Presidents, you’ve performed on Christmas day for NBA games. You’re part of a Grammy nominated album now, Billboard Charting. I know you charted number two on the Billboard charts. I’m probably missing all kinds of things but I’m so excited to chat with you today and as we were talking earlier, you even had the chance to do a collaboration with Piano Guys on one of their newest albums. So tell us a little bit about yourself beyond and how did you end up getting started and somehow getting all these opportunities now?

Ion: Well thank you for having me first of all. I come from a family of musicians. My parents are musicians. My grandparents on both sides are musicians and probably the next level, if I had to guess, I would think that they would be musicians. So I don’t know for sure but yeah, I was the youngest child and so when you have your first kid, you’re very careful and you just want them all to always surround you, no freedom, so nothing wrong happens.

Well, since I was the fourth one, my mom decided it was a great idea to put me in boarding school when I was in first grade. So I moved away from home in first grade, which was hard, but was also really good for me. I learned early on to be on my own and I was always surrounded by musicians because I’m originally from Romania, if I didn’t mention that, and then moved to the States in 2001.

Jason: Got it. How old were you when you moved to the States?

Ion: 21.

Jason: 21, wow. What was it that made you decide to move to the States instead of staying in Romania?

Ion: Well, there’s an official story and a non official story. The official story is that I want to embed myself in myself and go study and see other new places but I just never could get myself to do it. I broke up with my girlfriend at the time and I didn’t want to go as far as possible from this place. The funny thing is, after Romania, she went to Japan and I went to the US. Literally couldn’t go any farther. We’re good friends now but it was just like being young and emotional. I’m going to go do something completely different. So that was kind of the unofficial story just coming in.

Jason: I’m curious because a lot of musicians I know when I talked to them growing up, sometimes it’s frowned upon to have a career in the music industry where they’re told you can’t support a family. I’m curious where you came from, such generations and generations of musicians. What was it like when you were growing up? Was it expected that you’d be a musician? Did they tell you you should do other things? Tell me more about that.

Ion: That’s a great question because I just realized that now that this concept or the idea of telling “yeah, you can make a career, it’s hard to make money out of music and all” that’s only here (in USA). I’ve never heard that in Romania. That wasn’t something that was talked about like “oh if you’re a musician, you’re not going to be able to make a living”. I think it’s more of a stigma here for some reason. I don’t know why but yeah, because obviously, like two or three generations of musicians. We didn’t ever think that way. We just that’s what we are. That’s what we’re good at and that’s what we’re going to do. Whether you make money or not, it’s up to you or whatever, however you can play those cards. 

I recently did 23ANDME DNA test. I don’t know if you ever did that. One of the things that he said there which was absolutely insane, is that the people with your DNA, 80% of them, have perfect pitch and I do. Then, one of the writers that was writing, one of our buyers at one point, he was saying, music is so ingrained in us, it’s even in our DNA.

I just never thought of it that way. Only when I got here, people started talking about that idea of, “you’re not going to make enough to make a living out of it.” but in Romania, that wasn’t the thing.

Jason: Interesting. So, that was really ingrained in you. As you came here to the US, as you’ve tried to create that career and get into the business, were there times that were difficult for you?

Ion: Yes. What’s funny is that I used to hate the phrase when I say “starving artist.” That just rubbed me the wrong way. Why? The people would just say it so often here, which early on, it would be even justified because when I came to study, I received a letter that I got a full scholarship and in Romanian school, it’s free because it’s government and public and all that stuff, but didn’t realize that the school here is not free, even if it’s like a state university. 

So, I told my mom, I don’t need any money. I have everything covered. So I came and ended up in the university and they said, you see this? $18,000 a year. Yeah, we take all that back. To be honest, I was like, I don’t understand. So none of this goes to me for a living? No, no, none of it. So I literally had $600 in my pocket because I told my mom, I don’t need more than this. You know, this is all I already have money spent on and I just couldn’t get myself to call home and say “oh I need money” or “this is really hard”.

So I just started working as soon as I got here, which was really kind of difficult because my English was not great. It’s not great now but it was a dead horse. So yeah, that was really hard. The first year was just rough.

Jason: Did you do music gigs? What did you do for work?

Ion: So there were a couple of orchestra inputs that you can do. It is called practical training because you’re also not allowed to work as an international student but if it’s in your training, in your field, they have some exceptions. So you could go play in this orchestra part time. You can get paid and make some money and so that was great but every international student was also applying for those jobs. Like this single stream playing. You have stream players, Mania, Boulgate, all applying for this orchestra. The level that was in this part time orchestra, you wouldn’t believe because you had all these amazing stream players and so I was lucky to get a job there. We were playing like one concert a month, so we made like $500- $600 and just had that as my income for the first couple of years and then very little gigs. English was still the least. So, yeah, that was it. That was the orchestra, the one orchestra that I worked in.

Jason: How many years have you been doing that since you came to the US? 

Ion: Yeah, I’ve been here almost 21 years now.

Jason: 21 years. So, as you look at those 21 years, have there been times where you were feeling discouraged and just thought, man, this is crazy?

Ion: The first couple of years, it was really discouraging because it was very expensive. I almost went to study in Manhattan in New York with a teacher that I really liked but the lifestyle, the expenses were so high, there was no way I could afford it. It’s hard to get a scholarship at a school but to get a scholarship and living expenses type in, that would be almost impossible. So I couldn’t do it and so I had to stay here in the south and I did. 

Then my family in Romania used to go to church but when you’re young, you kind of let it go. You save stuff but you have other private things – you have a girlfriend, you have this, you have that. I remember at one point that I was so depressed, almost like it’s really, really hard. I found this one passage in the Bible that said, and I’m paraphrasing, “Don’t worry about it. If I take care of the birds and I love them enough, don’t I love you more to take care of you?” These spiritual nuggets just kind of helped me to just believe that things are going to be okay and I’m going to be okay, and just pull little by little bit.

I have to say that that kind of grew my faith and really helped me to get some hope and just feel like they had the strength to go on because it was really hard. There was a time where I was sleeping on the floor, I didn’t have money for the furniture and I had people donating a TV. I remember one of the maintenance guys gave me a TV but it was so old, you still have the wood frame on it. So we have no remote control and we used broomsticks to change the channel from the couch. So, I went through all of them, like the whole phases but definitely that’s why I can recognize the blessing. That is where I am now and I’m very grateful as you look.

Jason: Were there one or two turning points maybe as you look back in your life that were critical moments that kind of changed the trajectory of where you’re going?

Ion: I think so. Initially when I moved to the States, I didn’t know anything about the United States, so I only had one friend at LSU in Louisiana and so I went to LSU and then after a couple of years there, I realized it wasn’t what I wanted. So I looked at going to New York. That was the trip I was telling you about and that’s been very hard to do with moving there. The other place was Dallas. There was a position, I mean, I wanted to study with the principal views from Dallas Symphony. So I ended up going to SMU here in Dallas and I feel like that was the turning point because it gave me a little bit of breathing room. Life wasn’t as expensive as in Europe, but you still have really good, high quality musicians to learn from. I was able to focus and study and still be able to make a living not as hard. Like in Louisiana there was one orchestra and then here when I moved, they gave me a little bit and that would be, I would say, the first thing early on that kind of helped me.

Jason: As you’ve moved along, are there any other really big turning points or things that people have helped you with or given you advice on?

Ion: Yeah, I say when I started the quartet, that was a big turning point and then when I realized that you train all your life to play a specific style, I was playing with the symphony, and I was doing all these things. When I realized that I can play other styles, I think that was such a big revelation. When you think of it now, it doesn’t sound that big of a crazy revelation but when you think about it, because I would remember sitting in the orchestra and I would play, let’s say, rockman’s, like the theme of something really beautiful, right? I was like “oh, my gosh, that would be amazing with this other tune that would be like, from the pop or rock world, this tune goes” and I would make it up and everything people laughing, and I was like, that’s funny that you’re playing like mine up with Bon Jovi. I don’t know and then I realized I was like, you know what? This could be actually interesting. People like it. This realization that you don’t have to follow the exact pathways that everybody else follows before you like that it’s okay to get outside and create your own. I think that was the biggest thing that helped me change the course of my career.

Jason: That’s awesome. Growing up, when I was playing piano, I still vaguely remember that as I was practicing piano and I got to a piano lesson one time, I changed the melody to what I thought it should be. I can’t remember whether it was a rock song or something, but it just totally changed up. I had a teacher that said, if you change an old dead composer’s stuff, they’ll come and haunt you.

Ion:  [laughing] Oh, my God. I did not see that coming.

Jason: They were just joking with me and I just remembered this little kid like, I’m going to have ghosts come. I know they were just joking but it was just one of those funny things to the point where when I do a lot of arrangements of old tunes and I’ve got a piano teacher that’s a really good friend of mine. She has dead guys and live guys that she makes her people the composers and so you got the dead guy piece, and you got to choose a live guy piece as they’re playing. In my books, I’ll write on there like, hey, if you feel like you want to change these up and make it your own, please do. Nothing would make me more excited and happy to know that somebody thought that something I’d done was cool enough to stick with an AC/DC or Metallica or Bon Jovi. I have no doubt that if we could have a chat with the Beethovens and Rachmaninoff of the world, that they would be totally into a lot of the good music that we’ve had over the last 100 years as well.

Ion: Yeah, I agree completely. I like the idea. Another thing that I realized is that it’s good music, but it was written in 1800 and was written like yesterday. You know what I mean? It’s really easy for us to just like, oh, it’s not done like this anymore. The typical thing is just like “oh, they don’t make them like they used to” and it’s true to a certain degree, they’re like creative geniuses and all that but mature smaller music of phrases or melodies. They can be beautiful melodies now just as well as they were before. So there’s no reason just because there’s a certain genre to discredit it. You know how we are especially classical players. We’re completely taught not out loud but it’s understood that everything else is lower quality music and it’s not worth playing. I was talking to Steve from the Piano Guys, too. He deals with this a lot too, where people think it’s just because I play a pop to you, people think that they don’t think the same way, that you don’t deserve the same credit because it’s a more modern song but if it’s beautiful. I don’t see why we have to make that difference between them.

Jason: I get the same thing. A lot of the music that I’ve done that’s been successful from a financial standpoint has been hymn arrangements. I’ve done my best to go out and seek out just the most beautiful melodies. I don’t care what church they’re at. The funny thing is, if you research some of the stories, some of the churches would embrace a song, and then all of a sudden they’d say, oh, no, we can’t have this song and it’d be other churches that would do it. Like you said, a good melody is a good melody, whether it’s at a certain church or not at a certain church or who gets to be the judge of what a good song is. It’s the individual. Right?

Ion: Right. That’s something I wish you’d be taught in the modern schools when they teach classical musicians. The other thing I would make it mandatory is improvising. I don’t know if it’s the same for pianists but for string players, we’re to the point that a teacher would tell you what fingers to play, what direction the bow goes and what you should feel at that moment. This is about this, you should feel like this and play this. It took so much out of the creativity of the individual that you’re stuck with a copy of a copy of a copy of performances of somebody’s performance. I work with a lot of musicians and bring a lot of guests and contract a lot of musicians and it’s all fine until I say hey, can you improvise on these 16 bars and everything is lost. It’s like, no, what do you mean? You’re not going to give me music for these 16 bars? I mean, it’s just a major 16 bars, you can improve. So I would make that mandatory, like every string player to have some sort of level of improvisation. 

When I graduated, actually, I went to Berkeley in the summer. I just want to go and learn how to improvise. I feel like it’s really useful. I just went to Berkeley in Boston and I was like, oh my gosh and there’s like fiddling and all kinds of styles and jazz and this and cottage. None of them were using music sheets either, because we almost are becoming like we use it as a crutch. If you don’t have a music sheet in front, you can play. I mean, what can you think about it? 

For the majority of the history of music, none of them really have a music sheet in front of them. They’re just playing music because that’s what they feel. That’s what’s in their blood. The classical player, at least that I know, we’ve attached and we put too much into just reading and then we make it even notice probably. We make it sacred. Oh, it sits here. It should be this way. It’s fourth or piano or something, and they’re not even willing to discuss changing it or anything like that. It takes too much string play and talk. 

Jason: Well, I feel the same way on the piano side. Growing up, I mean, I had great piano teachers. I was a terrible student and didn’t practice near enough. I wish I would have, but I think part of the way I had to survive my piano lessons is I did have to kind of make it up as I went sometimes because I’d practiced so little. I hope anybody listening to this doesn’t say well, Jason didn’t practice a lot, so why should I have to? I wish I did, but I was never shown what a fake book was until I was I think 22 or 23, and somebody was like, hey, you should go get a fake book.

Ion: Same for me.  I have to Google what a fake book is.

Jason: I did too. I was like, is this a real book?

Ion: Is it like I’m just making fun of… I’m buying a fake book. That doesn’t even sound right.

Jason: I went into the piano store and said I’m supposed to come in and buy a fake book from you. The lady looked and said we only have two fake books. I’m like, well, can I look at your two? I remember one of them, it was this big old thick, like best songs, whatever, and it was like $60 and I’m like, oh, this guy says I’m supposed to buy this pretend fake book. I guess I’ll trust him. I didn’t even know what I was getting into and it changed my world. I think what happened is and I’ll describe this to people a lot of times when they ask about improvising, they’ll say, well, how do you know what to do? And I said, well, can you sing a tune? And they’re like, oh, yeah, that’s easy. You can sing along with music. And I said, you just need to teach your hand how to sing. It’s no different than your voice and once you can just focus on the melody and I think that’s what that fake book does with the melody written out for you. It teaches you how to sing and then trust your left hand enough to play on a chord. Then once you do learn how to sing, then you graduate to guitar tabs and other things and then you just start to trust yourself, which is really scary for anybody who’s been classically trained today. 

What’s so cool is the guitar tabs that exist out there between YouTube and then the guitar tabs. You can find any song you can dream up and go make it up on the fly. It just makes it more fun.

Ion: Yeah, absolutely. I don’t know, even now, you see this in school because I hired a lot of musicians, but I do a lot of projects and I just came back from San Antonio, we did a whole Christmas show with a 28-piece orchestra or something like that. We had one rehearsal and it was a whole Christmas show and we went from classical from Nutcracker to big bands to Michael Buble’s  “It’s beginning to look like Christmas” and you could tell who is comfortable reading fast and who is not. It makes all the difference. 

I would say, since this is a podcast for musicians, any advice? Just because I contract a lot of musicians, I do a lot of projects in music. 

35:27 One of the biggest things that I see is people being just stuck with one style, being able to only play one style really well. Then like a guitar player, for example, is just great at rock but sometimes if you work for any big production or music or pouring out this comes to town, you will have one song that is rock, you might have one that is pop or one that is country and you should be able to switch style.

Same for violinists, you should be able to go from classical to playing pop to playing rock and be able to change the style and not play them the same way. Having that flexibility, I think that makes somebody like a professional, at least for the recording world, you’ve seen that, right? When you bring somebody, you can only be just this one thing. The more qualities like this you have, you make more possibilities in the marketplace.

Jason: Earlier you were talking about the feeling of the music as well and changing, just trusting only. They said it has to be this way. What advice do you have for musicians when you talk to them about trying to find that emotion and the feeling part of the music?.

Ion:  On their own music or like somebody’s music?

Jason: Any music in general, what do you see? I guess what advice do you have for people to find that when they’re doing any music?

Ion: First of all, you have to make sure that you recognize the genre you’re playing. If you’re going to play like some country fiddle song but all of a sudden you have this big vibrato, playing the most romantic Djaikovski piece even though you might feel it that way, it just doesn’t feel right. So, recognizing the genre. 

One of the biggest things you can do is just listen to other genres outside of your music. I’m telling you, I was so deep in classical music, people would say Living on a Prayer and I was like, no or like, Journey, Don’t Stop believing. I was like, no. What is that? 

One of the projects I’ve done for the last few years, I’ve launched a big party band cover band with 18 piece production and crazy stuff. I realized I don’t know enough about music because I was so ignorant and you have friends that say “oh, country music sucks, or whatever” and then I had to do a whole program and put a concert together and it was all the classics from all these – Garth Brooks and all these people that are super famous in this field.

I was like, oh my gosh, actually that’s really nice music as a story. There’s quality in everything if you are willing to listen to other round rows. I wasn’t very open at the beginning so that’s something I’m learning. I think by listening to it, it will also make you more willing to play and learn. Federal players in country bands, they don’t vibrate like this, they don’t play this. So I think that will be the first, like the more you listen and you’ll be more open and I think willing to you can put your own quality to it, but still be in the right field because otherwise sounds strained. Like having your own thing when it doesn’t apply.

Jason: I think that’s great advice. You can find positives in any situation. Well, even outside of music, I’m sure as you look back, depending on the attitude you had in the situation, it could have been positive or negative.  You can always find good in all things if you’re looking for it.

Ion: Yeah, I agree with that. We had a conversation today about this because we had such a big project and so many musicians that we just finished last night. It adds up, man. You don’t think you’re being negative, but you’re just being a little negative. You know what I mean? It’s like, yeah, good. I wish this would be better, but amplify that by 25 and now whoever deals with it, it feels like maybe this project is not good. Everybody’s kind of complaining a little bit and then you realize, no, we’re doing amazing music. We’re playing in one of the most gorgeous venues that I’ve seen in an opera house. We’re getting paid really well. There’s no reason to be ungrateful, but it kind of dictates the group, too. It takes a few people to be like this, complaining about stuff. 

I’ve learned pretty quickly that you either have a conversation, hey, listen, this is what happens when one does it, and this and this, that’s not the culture I want to set. So they either kind of change with it or you’re going to have to move on. So, like, having a positive attitude, especially if you’re a musician playing with other bands, that’s crucial 40:26 because your attitude is what will get you hired again.

I strongly believe in that. I’ve hired musicians that aren’t as strong as others, but they have a better attitude when they’re coming to work. I was like, I wish I had this one person because they’re better, but I don’t want to deal with all this drama and stress and  negativity. So I rather have this guy that is one, much less but it’s like a beautiful great attitude. Everybody’s happy to be with him. So I would say, especially if you’re a musician that gigs a lot.

Jason: I’m curious as much as you’ve done, you’ve probably seen scenarios where there’s been a coach or the director or somebody, even just somebody in part of the dorkstor or the band that brings out the best in other people. I’ve been around a lot of sports, and you see sports teams and coaches have this knack for bringing the best out of people and I watched it firsthand down at probably one of the masters that I’ve seen do.

This is a guy named Chuck Meyer. So he helped Piano Guys get their start but he brings people in and, like, you get a musician and I think everybody innately has this I don’t call it imposter syndrome where you don’t feel like you’re not good enough. The reality is you’re there at this studio. This is your opportunity to shine and you just get scared you’re getting ready for a show, and you’re like, I can’t do this. I’ve watched in a handful of situations and then Chuck in particular, it stands out where you watched a singer that just didn’t believe they could do it. Or I’ve even been at the piano, and I’m just like, I’m not playing well. I’m just screwing this up. I need to go practice more and it was the time to do it and you watch an individual who is able to build and lift somebody up to another level, and it’s so interesting when someone believes in you all of a sudden the level you can actually get to and somebody believes, you know what, you’re great, but I know you can do even a little bit more.

I’m curious, as you’ve gone through your career, have you ever seen someone just elevate somebody to another level beyond what they thought they could do?

Ion: I don’t know if I can think of a person but I’ve been reading a lot on this because besides Dallas, I do a lot of production. I have two other big productions in every field, from classical to big band to production, like party band, anything that you and I realized that a lot of it, a lot of our musicians, like you said, the imposter syndrome is very present. 

There’s two ways. If you talk to them in a way like “hey, really need to kick it and show me, do it, blah, blah, blah. I pay a lot of money for you to be here and I’m having a lot of investment in this”. It kind of makes it even worse. 

If you have the other part where you encourage them but not just like” oh, my gosh, you’re the best, or like, I can’t believe you’re so good” because they won’t believe you. The idea is to just talk to them genuinely and give them a compliment. What I’ve learned and what I’ve been reading is that apparently a lot of us control our relationship with people  by how many compliments we give.

It seems that we know that they crave approval, right? But we’re not willing to give it. Even though the guy is a good musician, he needs to prove himself more to me before I give him my approval. We hold that approval as some sort of weapon against them. The truth of the matter is that we all desire to hear “you like my music, you like how I play”.

There’s two ways. You can either give that approval and they can let their guard down and be like, hey, I don’t have to prove myself to do this because a lot of musicians come in and they just have this guard up. They have to justify to me, like I played with this guy and I produce with this guy. I did this and I did this. You know, I went to Cleveland Institute in Julliard School of Music from Royal Academy and I don’t want to say it but in truth is, like, I don’t care where you went to school.

I don’t care where you played it. If you can’t track this in particular, it doesn’t do me any good. It doesn’t mean anything. Then it took me a few years to realize that the reason they’re telling me all that, is because they felt like I don’t trust them. 

So every time I bring a new musician, I don’t know if I’m intimidated by what is happening, but I have to have  two or three meetings. I make it a point where I go, like, let’s have coffee. Let’s have lunch. It’s like, I’m genuinely interested in you as a person. Let your guard down. You don’t need to prove anything to me. The reason that I already invited you to play with us, that means that I think you’re good. So I was like, you have nothing to already prove to me.

It’s psychology. We’re all like that because I feel like I’m like that too, because people hold compliments, especially classical musicians, they are really brutal, because for some reason, in our head, we feel like if I’m giving you a compliment, I’m saying that you’re better than me, and we don’t want to look less than them.

No, I’m good. I’m better than you. So we don’t give each other anything. Like, yeah, that was okay, but, you know, there was a little bit out of tune a little bit on the fifth finger, you know what I mean? So I’ve done it. I’ve made it a point for the last couple of years where I would just generally give them a hug. Just lift, glitch it.

People are hard to take their guard off and when I give you a hug, I give you a hug. I love having you. You’re an amazing person. You’re an amazing musician. I can’t wait to see what you can sing and it depends. Some people are faster to respond to that and some people take longer. 

I texted my singers. We did this big show in San Antonio. I was like, hey, I would like for you guys to share a Christmas story with the audience so we make it more of a story, because people at some point, you play 28 songs you know, they’ll be bored. You need to give them a story. You need to give them something else.

So I was like, I’d like, for you guys to share a little bit, like, what’s your favorite memory of? You won’t be surprised how many “I don’t have a happy memory of Christmas.” I was so blown away by the responses and then I realized, man, truly that’s what they need. People need to be loved and need to appreciate it and have love invested in them because that’s how they grow. I think maybe your friend would agree with that because of that distrust. That is like I have to throw away my stress. I find this very fascinating about musicians.

Jason: I think one of the things is as you’re talking about these classical musicians, you want to be perfect. You want to do it just right. I think when you think about live performances or think about some of the best shows you’ve ever been to, the imperfections or what makes it beautiful and more meaningful. I think the same thing just in people in general, when you’re talking about sharing the stories of I don’t have a happy memory, my guess is they’ve got memories, but maybe there’s something hard they went through. I think it’s a lot of time we stay guarded because we don’t want somebody to think I did have a crappy childhood, or I had this really awful thing happen to me. I think, like you said, giving somebody a hug and saying it’s okay and that’s why I love you, despite all of the things that may have happened. I think the key is not letting those imperfections define who you’re going to be moving forward.

Ion: I found this because mostly lately I’ve been taking more of the role of a producer than just the musician because I have to oversee all the production and do all this stuff and the environment that you create. Like you were saying, just having the right person there, it makes work so much more fun. Whereas people feel accepted and feel loved and not like a weird hippie, kumbaya, let’s all be happy, do your job kind of thing, but be professional, but also know that it’s okay if you mess up. You’re talking about a number of performances. 

I remember I went to a concert and this guy said he was the lead singer and they started the song and he just couldn’t remember the word and it’s like 3000 people there and they’re like singing and he’s waiting and he’s about to leave like a whole congregation. It was like a huge church concert or something. Then all of a sudden he says, do you remember that time when you forgot the lyrics in front of 3000 people? And everybody just starts laughing and it’s like, hey, how’s it going? Keyboard guys singing top balance.

I remember that concert. I went to a lot of perfect concerts. I don’t remember the memorable stuff like that, but that was super sweet and I was like, it’s okay to be imperfect. Just don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying don’t take responsibility for preparing you for a concert or stuff like that, but just don’t use it as a weapon. It’s like, oh, see, I told you you’re not good enough, kind of thing.

Jason: Absolutely. We’re coming to kind of the end of the time. I just want to kind of think about this. So the whole premise of this podcast is success and a successful musician. So if you could rewind the clock, or let’s say you were in front of a group of 19 to20-year-old kids that are in a thinking, I want to have a career in music, what advice would you pass along to them about success and then how to approach this music career thing they’re thinking about?

Ion: Okay, so I have a couple of thoughts. There’s a book that is called Stacking. I don’t know if you ever came across it. There’s a guy, I don’t think he’s like a big writer or anything like that, but he has a concept that is very interesting. He says you can become the specialist in one thing and be like, let’s say 100% the best. Which most people cannot do because there’s always somebody better than me, right?

Let’s take in music, you can be a singer. People think they can be like 100% of the best they can be, but most of us can only be reached like 80%. If you reach 80% of your capabilities, pretty good, how good you are. He talks about adding other talents that you can stack. So if you’re a singer and you’re really good, you’re not the best, but you’re really good at that right now but you also play piano, so you just stacked another quality to it. You just became a singer that also plays piano. You just cut like that. You’re competing, let’s say, from 10,000 people. Now you’re competing with four or 3000 right now. 

Maybe you can do one more thing. Like, you’re really good at marketing also while you play piano or like, we’re talking about early, like you should be amazing, like good lighting or you have great stories. Build on those things, like blocks of success. Find what you are good at and what you are passionate about because all of this music, it’s all about desire. If you don’t have a really strong desire, you will fail.

Your desire has to be so strong that it has to drive you to the degrees like, “I’m going to learn this because this is what I see for myself.” And I love this thing and I cannot live without it. Music is like a drug for me. It’s in my blood. I want it, I need it. So I’m going to chase it, but find stuff. But I also love movie making. Like, I love cinema. I love storytelling, okay? How can I use my music? 

Look, Lindsey Sterling, she’s the perfect example, right? I mean, she’s a good violinist, but she’s not the greatest violinist. AShe would tell you that sort of. She’s the one who admits that but now dancer and violinist, now not that big of a market, is it? So she just proved this concept, find something else that you love besides music and see if you can combine it. This year when we released this, our group was not signed with a label, independent, right? So our goal is and we want to get this album on the Billboard chart. And in competing, we were in the classical chart and the classical crossover.

There are a lot of artists like Yoyo Mao there and people like them, with great stuff. There was like one of the albums was like the James Bond 25th Anniversary Edition, and you have big names, Lang Lang and Lindsey Sterling and stuff. And it’s hard. Like, you’re not a sign artist. You don’t have the market they have. 

Then we said, this is going to be it. And so we pushed it. We found ways, creative ways, like talking about going outside of our ways, like, hey, what do we have? We have a lot of friends. We have a lot of people that genuinely support us. So those friends became ambassadors and helped us and we sold. The only person that was above us was Lindsay Sterling because her cities were Walmart and Target. I was like, there’s no way I can do this. And so we got a string quartet from Dallas with no label on this Billboard chart, number two. And so it was incredible. We said, we want to be part of this Grammy world. How can we do it? And we did stuff while I was outside.

This New Age album that we’re on that got nominated is nothing like we play, like nothing. I was open to it. So being open to other ideas, other styles, flexibility we were talking about earlier, being flexible and willing to do other things, it’s what I think will make a musician successful and be professional, like show up on time.

I can’t even say this so many times that  55:31 it  is such a turn off to have a musician not show up on time or not come with their headphones or whatever. They need to be prepared. I don’t even care how good you are. If you come unprepared and you’re on time, you don’t have your gear with you. 

I literally had a stand before he got there because he said, oh, my keyboard stand. So I have to send some staff guys to buy a keyboard stand before the general rehearsal. That’s not my job. 56:01 And those things matter. There are things like this that are in your control. Being the best, having the best voice in the world is not in your control. Right? But being punctual, being like you said, being positive, that’s in your control, you can do those things. That will go a long, long way, I think. So that’s my advice. That’s a long advice. But that’s kind of what I see from working with a lot of musicians.

Jason: Awesome. Great words of wisdom. I appreciate you taking so much time out of your busy schedule to chat, but I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of people who are going to benefit from hearing and hearing you tell them or just advice. I think there’s just so much need for people to be able to improve and try harder. So this is great. So thank you so much.

Ion: Absolutely. Thank you for having me. 

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 Finding success and fulfillment in the music industry is possible. Looking forward to seeing you in our next episode.

How to Connect with the Featured Guest:

Our special guest for today is Ion Zanca, a violist and the principal founder of the Dallas String Quartet. 

In October 2022, Zanca charted at #2 on the Classical Album and Classical Crossover Album Billboard Charts with DSQ’s latest album, “Love Always.” Under Zanca’s tutelage, The group has played for multiple sitting U.S. presidents, the NFL, the NBA, performed at the wedding of music legends Gwen Stefani and Blake Shelton, released a collaboration with The Piano Guys, charted on Billboard, and acquired over 50 million streams on Spotify. 

As of November 2021, the group has more than 600 million streams on Pandora, 6.2 Million views on YouTube, and had over 5.8 million listeners on Spotify. 

What You’ll Learn

In this episode,Ion shared why he chose to go to the US rather than staying in Romania. He also explained why he used to hate the phrase “starving artist”.

Ion also has this concept of improvisation in music and stacking of talents that we need to hear.

Another important take-away is what Ion believes. He doesn’t even care how good you are. If you come unprepared and you’re not on time, that’s a big X.

Things We Discussed

23ANDME DNA test –  a DNA testing with the most comprehensive ancestry breakdown, personalized health insights and more.

Fake book – a collection of lead sheets. These sheets will have the chord symbols, the basic melody, and notated chords/harmony, generally no more than one or two sheets of music per tune. A fake book could contain hundreds of such sheets, making it a very economical way to learn tunes or bring music to a gig.

Connect with Ion Zanca

Website (Dallas String Quartet)

Youtube ( Dallas String Quartet



Connect with Jason Tonioli







Amazon Music

Apple Music

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