When to Step Away: How Do I Know When It’s Time?

As musicians we frequently learn the most from playing in situations that push our boundaries, especially when we are playing with others who play at a more accomplished level than we do, or in a less familiar genre than we usually work in which requires us to learn, frequently quite a bit, quickly and adapt readily. While if we do this all the time it might be damaging to our egos, it often can be quite rewarding and teaches us that we are more capable than we thought we were. This is a healthy, albeit sometimes uncomfortable, challenging environment that does promote growth. These are situations which should be welcomed and sought after for the betterment of our abilities, but what do we do in situations where we aren’t getting what we need musically; when do we know we should step away and move onto something else?

Self-knowledge can go a long way in allowing us to realize that we’re stepping into situations that we aren’t compatible with to begin with, or to recognize when a situation is starting to veer away from where we want to be or go. If we know that a given type of situation is likely to lead to our being dissatisfied, unhappy, or even downright hostile, then it is up to us to take a pass on the job, regardless of how much it pays. Sometimes we still take the job despite this knowledge figuring we can deal with it for the short term or whatever justification we come up with, and sometimes it works. Most of the time it turns out as we expected and we end up kicking ourselves for making the move to begin with.

If you are a person who does well in situations where you are essentially a side-man(woman), or hired gun there are some situations that work beautifully for that type of individual. There are some bands where musicians are hired to fulfill specific functions by a bandleader who determines exactly what direction things are going to flow in and what the band’s goals are. This is fine when this is understood from the start. In fact, this type of situation is the norm in many types of music and in many types of gig situations, and are often some of the better paying gigs to hook up with. When going into one of these support positions it is very important to know if you are capable of happily fulfilling the requirements, and if you have an affinity for the type of music the band specializes in. If so, then these types of situations can become excellent bread and butter jobs.

The more complicated situation is where the band functions mostly as a democracy and this requires that the individuals can deal with a majority rules situation. Here, all voices should be heard and issues need to be discussed with full transparency. The sooner an issue arises, the sooner it must be dealt with in order for the band to keep functioning smoothly. It is extremely important that all of the band members share the same goals and aspirations for the band, otherwise conflict will ensue, either quickly or gradually. If you find yourself in a band that functions this way, but find that your voice seldom has an impact on things that matter to you, then you should seriously consider moving to a different band where you have more say in your fate. We work as performers largely out of a love for music; if we don’t like the music we have to perform, it shows and takes its toll. Talk things through with your bandmates. If things don’t change then it’s definitely time for you to make a change, and this can be accomplished with a minimum of fuss or hard feelings.

Situations inevitably become most fragile when the band members have goals that conflict with the overall goals of the band. If, for instance, your goal as a musician is to make a living performing, then joining a band that has a stated performance goal of twice a month is a sure fire way to end up needing to move on. The band has it’s own agenda while you have yours, which is fine, but I guarantee that the end result is going to lead to stress. They are going to have rehearsal expectations that often will take time away from you’re possibly taking outside gigs. You’ll definitely need to work with additional groups in order to book enough dates in a month to make your money, which is going to result in scheduling conflicts between the various groups and someone is going to end up upset. So if your goals are significantly different from the band you’re plugging in with as an active member, make sure that it’s clear at the outset. Even then in all likelihood you’ll need to eventually part ways for something that matches your goals and expectations more closely.

Sometimes the dynamics change in the band that we’ve been with. Whether it is a shift in direction, too much time playing the same material, issues with existing members or new members, or personal issues within our families on the home front, change is inevitable. In these situations transparency is the best option. If you’re no longer satisfied with what you’re doing then do everyone a favor, especially yourself, and find something else that better suits your needs. In this, as in all of the cases noted above, always approach the situation calmly and professionally. If you decide to move on be honest about it and give your notice so you’re not leaving your soon to be co-workers in a lurch. You always want to make sure that to the best of your ability you leave on a positive note and don’t burn bridges. Burning bridges usually has a way of coming back and haunting those that torch them.