One Band or Several: How much work can you handle?

There was a time when one could be a regularly working musician and play with one band. Sometimes this is still the case, but those situations are pretty rare these days. Many weekend warriors still adhere to the one band mantra for various reasons, not the least of which is time available to devote to the band. It does simplify the issue in terms of booking and juggling set lists and scheduling. Booking alone can be a source of angst even when dealing with players who are dedicated to one band. If the band consists of five people, then that’s five families’ worth of scheduling as well as day-job complications. When you add factors like limiting the number of gigs per month to two due to spousal peace keeping it builds in heavy frustrations for whomever is booking the band.

Today, most musicians who are steadily working do so by performing with multiple groups. They prioritize simply by the order in which the gigs come in: whichever band books the date first gets the player. This can complicate the lives of the members of the other bands, unless there is a web of potential subs available, which is often the case when the bands themselves are built with a core of working musicians. They know the score and book the gigs relying upon subs to fill gaps as needed which feeds other folks’ gig bookings through being able to fill in when group members are gigging with other bands.

Gigging with and being a member of multiple bands can be quite rewarding not only from a wallet perspective. It can also create a very healthy amount of variety into the mix. Often the different bands have different focuses and might fit very different niches. What you do is only limited by the amount of time you have available to dedicate to the repertoire, and your ability to fulfill your role in the different genres. It’s not unusual to play in an R&B band one night, a Blues band, another, maybe an original band in the mix, and possibly an Alt Rock band or Variety dance band as well. The important thing to keep in mind is that when you agree to do these things you need to follow through and do them to the best of your abilities. Don’t spread yourself too thin! That being said, doing work of this sort builds valuable repertoire that sometimes can carry over into any pick up work you might do as well.

Along with variety and increasing the odds of better stuff to be found in your wallet, playing with several bands increases your visibility as a player as well. If you do your job in all of the bands, do it well, and are easy to work with, the word will get out and you’ll find your phone ringing for sub work as well on your off nights. People need players that they can count on to deliver the goods and the word does get around the more you do. This can also lead to bigger and better things in the form of offers from more well known acts that need players, to even a national level if you’ve been diligent enough. The only way to open that door is to get out there and build a positive reputation. Granted, there are no guarantees, but a large part of having good luck is opening the door for it through hard work and proving your reliability regardless of the circumstances.

The important thing to remember in all of this is to know your limits. Any time you join another band there is going to be time required in the woodshed working up tunes you’re not familiar with. Make sure you understand what is expected of you and be as transparent as possible about your involvement with other groups. If you don’t have time to do the woodshedding, then you really shouldn’t take the gig. Many bands have rehearsal expectations in addition to the gigging requirements, so be up front with everyone about what you’re willing and able to do. If it’s not going to work, then accept that and either look for another opportunity elsewhere or if something you’d really like to do, carefully take a realistic look at what your other commitments are before you make the decision.   What you can handle in an all-pro manner should be your guideline.

If what you want is to stick with one band, then there’s nothing wrong with that. Many people happily go about their lives that way, finding the one group and whatever gigs that come or don’t come from it enough to satisfy their need to perform and make music. Often much of the local music scenes are made up of individual groups that don’t stray into polygamous musical entanglements, and those groups tend to make it very clear when they’re looking for replacement band members that they don’t want “jobbers,” musicians who perform for a living. They associate this with difficult schedules that don’t allow for a regular weekly commitment to rehearsing and complications when it comes to booking the band. Whichever way you choose to do it, whether it’s the multiple band scenario or the one and only, transparency on your part and a personal commitment to do all of the work required are absolute necessities.

Memorization: Is it the Defining Moment in Professionalism?

Memorization of material is both a gift and an acquired skill. For some individuals, memorizing a piece of music is process that occurs naturally, primarily through the repetitive process of practicing the piece. For others, myself included, repetition alone is not sufficient to lodge the material in the gray matter, to be called upon at will in a performance setting. Some pieces I latch onto and do manage to log into my recall centers. It is interesting to me, however just exactly this recall ability varies from genre to genre. With pop genres, I find that I’m essentially playing along to an inner track inside my head, guided by my memory of how the song sounds. I essentially push the playback button and off I go. The issue becomes more complex when it comes to classical guitar and fingerstyle guitar, because reproducing the soundtrack involves quite a bit more intricacy. I would also contend that some of my memorization disability comes from years of being an excellent sight reader. This can hamper memorization because folks who aren’t have to work harder through sections and thus have a much higher immediate benefit from memorizing the material. Some musicians believe that it is more professional to perform music from memory than to use the sheet music during performance, while others, and I count myself amongst these, maintain that it is the overall quality of the musical performance that matters, not whether one has the sheet music on stage.

The point here isn’t whether or not memorization is a valuable and important skill for a performer to have, nor is it whether one should or should not employ this skill. Those points are very clear as they stand. Yes, it is a valuable and important skill to have and whenever possible it should be employed. Professional musicians do use their reading skills on stage all the time. In some genres this is seen less, but this is also largely because in some genres the bulk of the musicians performing can’t read music aside from chord charts, and often find those to be problematic. Many jazz performers go to gigs toting along their fake books, pulling them out when someone calls a tune they don’t know and reading the material on the fly. Boom, it’s part of the gig. Orchestral musicians always read their material when performing together, for many reasons, not the least of which is the sheer volume of material they have to plow through in a concert season. Even when they break into trios and other smaller formats, more often than not they are performing with musical scores in front them.

Solo artists, particularly in the classical music genre, often perform from memory, but that does not mean that they will not perform a piece until it is memorized. If you can perform the piece well before completing memorization, use the sheet music and get on with it. Give the best performance that you can, memorization in most cases is icing upon the icing. The important things are linked to the music itself, the quality of your connection to it, your ability to communicate the piece, and what the audience can see of your performance. As long as you’re not hiding behind the music stand and the audience can see your performance as well as hear it, the presence of sheet music is really a non-issue. Once again, it boils down to what enables the performer to give the best possible performance of a piece that he or she can.

The lack of a music stand on stage isn’t really a mark of professionalism. All it really tells you is that the performer, hopefully, has excellent memorization skills. Granted, some forms such as opera absolutely require memorization skills because there is movement involved and the performers cannot be tied down to a specific spot on stage. If you can’t memorize the arias, you won’t get the role, no matter how well you can perform them with sheet music. Popular genres have an established no music stand on stage norm, once again largely because most of the individuals couldn’t read the material on sheet music anyway. However, the irony is that most recordings that come out industry hubs like Nashville are produced with studio musicians who are reading charts of one sort or another during the recording sessions, a skill that if they lacked they would not have the gig to begin with. In these cases the studio cats aren’t usually the same people who go out on the road with the headliners and they’re all fine with that. It’s a simple relegation of duties based upon skill sets, and often life style preferences among all of the musicians involved in the entire process.

The ability to read musical charts and scores is actually more of a sign of professionalism than the lack of a music stand on the stage. It requires very specific training, often formal training, and is a life long skill. It opens a world of opportunity to those who can read, much like the ability to read written language does for the entire population, and can actually lead to the ability to take musical jobs that non-readers simply cannot even apply for. Memorization is indeed an excellent skill, and should be encouraged, but it is not necessarily a be all end all mark of professionalism. When I go to a concert, I want to be presented with the artists’ best rendition of the music they can give. If it involves reading from a chart, so be it. It’s not robbing me of an excellent experience.

Tuning and the Nylon String Guitar, a Quick Note

Tuning is something most of us pay attention to. We play an instrument that requires attention to detail and the very nature of the classical guitar is such that tuning is a constant. The strings are less stabile than steel strings and the instruments respond to even small changes in temperature and humidity. One of the great conveniences that has come about is the evolution of the electronic tuner, most notably the clip on variety which attach to the headstock of the instrument for as long as they are needed.

At a recent masterclass with Maja Radovanlija of the Minneapolis Guitar Quartet, the topic of tuning came up, in particular when dealing with ensemble performances. Guitarists tend to rely pretty heavily upon electronic tuners and generally subscribe to the concept that A440 is always A440 on every tuner. It is supposed to work this way, but even the slightest discrepancy between “A440s” can create discord. We use our tuners somewhat religiously and rely on them to match each string to what is the accepted standard. For the most part this works, however strings differ, instruments differ, and anyone who has played a guitar for an extended period of time has been known to make adjustments depending upon the key to bring the individual instrument in tune with itself to provide the best performance.

This becomes more complicated when playing with other folks because their tuners might vary from yours, as well as their string choice, etc. In short the best way to deal with this is to have everyone tune using their tuners and then designate the “master tuner” and fine tune by ear to his or her strings. This will result in the best overall result. Radovanlija recommends devoting 10 to 15 minutes prior to performance ensuring that the group is perfectly in tune to maximize the over all tuning of the group of guitarists performing together.

Of course there will still be the need to check tuning throughout the performance as our instruments warm up in tandem with ourselves, and while tuning stability varies from guitar to guitar and string to string, it is not something we can afford to take for granted. In a perfect world, the temperature and humidity level will be the same in the green room as it is in the performance space of the venue, but often this is not the case. We also have to face those performances that have multiple groups playing in them and there are varied staging areas gradually progressing to the green room and then onto the stage. In these performance situations we can be certain that we’re going to be exposing our instruments to varied environmental influences which will affect our tuning negatively, necessitating quite a bit of adjustments along the way.

No matter how we choose to paint it, tuning is something that requires our attention and care. If we short change the time spent on it, the music suffers, the audience suffers, and ultimately we turn in a shoddy performance regardless of the amount of time we’ve devoted to rehearsing and practicing our parts. Take the time to complete the deed and we’ll all be thankful in the long run.

Musicality and the Quest for Technical Perfection

It’s odd, but a real thing. Sometimes musicians, in their quest for hitting the right notes at the right time, forget to be musical and need a reminder to get it together and make actual music. Hitting all of the right notes at the right time is important, yes, but quite frankly I’d rather hear a musical performance with a few mistakes here and there than one that was technically stellar but lacked the soul of the music. Phrasing and dynamics are two key aspects to providing some of the piece’s soul, but in order to make it all make sense the performer must have a solid understanding of what the piece has to say as well.

This is not to say that one needn’t put in the time to work toward technical perfection. The fact of the matter is that more often than not one of the main reasons the soul is missing is that the performer is under prepared technically. In this case the performer is struggling with simply putting everything where it’s supposed to be on the fretboard when it’s supposed to be there and for how long it’s supposed to be there. When one is struggling with this, the ability to focus on the musicality of the piece is severely hampered. So do you need to wait until you have the piece memorized to work in expression and imbuing the piece with life? To put it simply, no.

When we start working on a new piece we often start by sight reading as much as we can to give ourselves a chance to assess the piece in relationship to our abilities and get an idea of what sections will need the most work, as well as to give ourselves an idea of how long we can expect it to take to get it in hand. From there we should start working on the physical mechanics of learning the piece and start actively listening to others performing it, following with the score as well as simply listening to it. This gives us an assessment of what others have made of the piece, how they phrased sections and what dynamic shifts were present. Then we should start analyzing the score, looking for relationships between thematic motifs and the structure and additionally how much help the composer or arranger has given us through marking phrasing, dynamics, and additional instructions. This sets the stage for understanding how we should approach the piece both from a logical and emotional perspective. What is exactly being expressed in each section is there in the score but often takes some digging on the performer’s part in order to wring out the best presentation of the piece that we can. We need to work on this aspect of the piece in tandem with working on the physical ability to play the piece, because in reality this will often impact the choices we make in fingerings as well as where we are playing on the instrument physically.

Some folks firmly believe that the performer can only achieve a truly exemplary performance of the piece if it is memorized and I understand their perspective on this. Memorization implies an understanding of the music that has become an innate part of the performer; however, I believe that stellar performances aren’t necessarily tied to memorization skills. It is quite possible to be quite musical while having a score in front of you, as long as you have the understanding of the piece and are essentially using it as a reminder. Not having the piece memorized doesn’t mean it’s not ready for performance; it just means it’s not ready for performance from memory. Different people have different skill sets and some folks are simply not good at memorization. If those musicians waited until they had a piece memorized to perform it, they would have vast amounts of time waiting between performances that they could have given quite well with the score present. Let’s face it, most orchestral musicians do almost every performance with a score in front of them and still churn out wonderful performances. They have done the work, understand the music they are working with and bring it to life night after night without memorizing it. Yes, they have a conductor who helps, but nonetheless they have to do the work themselves to ensure the success of the performance.

If we adopt an approach where we learn the piece musically as well as physically simultaneously, the chances of delivering a sterile performance are dramatically reduced. What we want to achieve is a symbiotic relationship with each piece that we perform and in order to do so we have to understand that it is truly a symbiotic relationship. The score needs the musician to give it life and we need the score (or the piece) in order to do what we do. Neither is successful without a solid understanding and emotional connection between the performer and the piece. If this isn’t present we’re shortchanging the music, ourselves, and ultimately, the audience as well.