Getting into Shape

I have a gig: one that pays money, one in which I know I will be treated with the consideration due a professional with my experience.

It is part of our practice as artists to not take these opportunities for granted. Getting work as a musician where you can expect to be paid reliably (if at all, unless you really find value in beer tickets) and work in a clean and safe environment is not something many of us can rely on anymore. It is also a good practice to remember because YOU landed a gig, OTHERS didn’t. It would not surprise me if there is another guitarist who is much more talented and trained than I am who would gladly give his eye teeth for my job.

One way we can honor our colleagues is to treat work seriously when it comes our way. Although guitarists will always have a tendency to judge each other no matter how skilled, I simply refuse to let my own carelessness, poor craft, or unprofessional attitude to lead someone to rightly conclude that he or she would being doing a much better job than I am doing if only given the chance.

Right now I am working on a production of the musical The Full Monty with the Short North Stage, a professional theater group that I have been associated with in the past. It’s a fun book with a nice R&B/rock feel and a lot of nice horn parts. Theater work can make a lot of demands on your time–it is not unusual to have to sit through a 12-hour rehearsal where you only occasionally may get to play for more than a few bars at a time. But in exchange, the Short North Stage has a contract outlining the terms of payment which is waiting for me on my music stand the first day of rehearsal, and I know they will pay me (not in beer tickets) when they say they will. So while I have an obligation to do well for my guitar-playing colleagues who don’t have a gig, I also have a professional obligation to do the best I can for the people signing the checks. It takes a shit ton of money, time, and risk to produce and market any theatrical production. If someone is taking a big financial risk, then I certainly owe it to them to play in tune, show up on time, and be nice to work with.

Since I don’t do theater work for a living, I know that when I sign a contract, in exchange for my pay I have agreed to have the specific skills necessary to work in a pit band. So in between the time I say “yes” to the gig offer and the time I unpack my gear, I must give serious thought to getting myself in shape. 

Getting in shape doesn’t imply that I never practice guitar unless I have a gig, and now I simply have to now relearn everything I used to know. It means that it there is not enough hours in the day to practice every skill I need for every gig I could be offered. I maintain a level of general technical proficiency, but sometimes I need to focus on certain muscles I haven’t used in a while.

Being a professional anything means this: you have the knowledge and skills to adapt your craft/art to any position within your chosen field. A psychologist once told me a story that illustrates this point rather well. There is a respected pediatric psychologist who is hired to head the department of geriatric psychology at a well-known teaching hospital. One day, one of his students asks him, “Professor, when was it that you became an expert in geriatric psychology?”

“Why, when I accepted this job!” the professor replies.

Is he being facetious? No, I think Doc is onto something very important. Being a professional geriatric psychologist is simply a subset of being a professional psychologist. A professional psychologist has the knowledge, experience, ability to adapt, and determination to be a professional geriatric psychologist, or a pediatric psychologist, or a forensic psychologist. Above all, he or she is a professional; in this case a professional who understands psychology very well.

Likewise, I think any professional musician should possess the goods to be a professional jazz musician, rock musician, church musician, or circus musician. Professional musicians, the good ones at least, possess core musical skills which allow them to reliably play appropriate music for any gig.

Note, however, I did not say that professional musician can produce music of the highest possible quality and technical standard for every possible genre of gig. Being professional does not mean that you are a specialist (although most professional musicians I know can play at a specialist level in at least one or two genres).

For example, even though I have never seriously studied classical guitar, I have been hired (and re-hired, thankfully) for both solo classical and chamber music gigs.Does this mean I’m the best classical guitarist going? Far from it.

What it does mean is that if you hire me to play classical guitar, I am going show up on time with the proper equipment, play in tune, look professional, and play with a smile on my face. I am not going to put any strain on the conductor by forcing him or her to spend an excessive amount of time trying to accommodate “that shitty guitarist.” A large part of being professional is knowing how to make what you do seem effortless, which is not necessarily the same thing as being the most technically accomplished musician in the room.

When I say I am getting in shape for gig, I mean something quite specific. It means that I will make an honest appraisal of my own strengths and weaknesses and, based on this knowledge, practice and study exactly what I MYSELF need to know in order to make everyone–the money folks, the stage director, the sound guy, my fellow musicians–not disappointed to have me on the gig. A musician with an unprofessional attitude can very quickly drain everyone else’s confidence and enthusiasm, from the lighting tech to the chorus line dancers. Being unprofessional is both disrespectful and stressful for your collaborators.

Since, as I said, what I need to practice to play professionally for a musical may is probably not what you would need to practice. So first, I take stock of my strengths.

Larry’s strengths as a guitarist:

  • Fluent in many different musical styles
  • Once I learn music, I don’t quickly forget it
  • I have a good ear
  • I can adjust my playing to work with musicians of all backgrounds and skill levels
  • I’m not a complete asshole to work with
  • If I can’t mail something at rehearsal, I will practice it at home until it is right

And I must look at my weaknesses.

Larry’s weaknesses as a guitarist:

  • I am a mediocre sightreader at best
  • I have a tendency to “zone out” and lose focus during long meetings/rehearsals
  • I don’t always properly maintain my equipment or have the necessary backups
  • I lack the physical stamina to regularly play long gigs
  • Isn’t it odd that I somehow have more strengths than weaknesses?

Those are only some, but with this information, I can start to think about how I can adapt my skills to a theater gig. Based on such a list, I might begin getting into shape in this way.

  • Since I know I don’t read music reliably, I cannot depend on my sightreading skills alone to get me through the gig. However, I am good at learning and remembering music. With this in mind, I spend a lot of time at home listening to a recording of the musical and following along with my score without my instrument. Since I’m not very good at counting multiple-bar rests, I will listen for and make a note of cues that will help reorient me if I lose my place in the music. For example, if I know there’s a four-bar trombone solo right before my guitar solo, I’ll make a note to listen for it. Luckily, in musicals, a lot of the more tough passages tend to come right after very prominent points in the action–this actor says this line, that light comes on, a gun shot goes off, etc. Knowing my cues allows me to preserve my energy for playing a difficult part correctly rather than worrying if I have counted 27 or 31 bars of rest. I know that there is a good chance that I will lose my focus so I have to make sure I have other skills that will allow me to play my parts when they’re supposed to be played.
  • The most complicated music in a musical tends to happen when an arranger is attempting to to notate the peculiar rhythmic nuances of different styles of music. For example, funk guitar parts like the type Jimmy Nolen played with James Brown’s band can look as complicated as some late 20th-century serialist music when written down. In this case like, I realize that this ghastly rhythm is intended for a guitarist whose reading skills surpass his or her ability to play funky. Since I feel comfortable in different musical styles, I feel confident creating a new part rhythm part based on my direct knowledge of that style. As any experienced rhythm section player knows, you can likely come up with a more funky, swinging, or satisfying backing part than what the arranger actually notated. Of course, if you share any unison rhythms with the other instruments, you must need to learn those precisely. Or, if your music director demands faithfulness to the music as notated, then you will have to figure out a way to do it. This is where I can rely on my willingness to practice at home and my ability to retain music once I have learned it.
  • While it’s never good to be out of tune, you will never sound worse than when you’re strumming an out-of-tune chord during a quiet section in the lead actor’s showcase piece. Before starting a musical, I make sure that I have a reliable working tuner which allows me to tune quietly and often throughout the show, especially after a number that has a lot of string bending or aggressive rhythm parts. (I prefer those cheap clip-on headstock tuners for this purpose since when I lose them, it’s not a huge deal). I’ll also take stock of my equipment and make sure that all my cords, knobs, and jacks are in good working order. An out-of-tune chord is bad, but so is a unexpected burst of noisy static from a faulty patch cord during an actor’s death scene. I will think about what effects I may need based on the score and which ones I can leave at home. Often an arranger’s instructions to play with a “heavy metal tone” simply means that you should play a part just a little louder, maybe with just a little extra overdrive and sustain, so you can leave your Big Muff at home. Ultimately, though, you have to listen to your music director at times like these. If he or she insists that, by golly, that these directions mean you must absolutely solo like Kerry King from Slayer, then you may need to bring the extra box and  bigger amp.

Kerry King of Slayer–with a frickin’ puppy! That’s not very metal…

I think you get the point. Ultimately by getting in shape, it means that I will be able to enjoy playing the gig, which will allow me to think more about the musical than fingerings. Struggling through your music for two or three hours for four shows a week is just miserable, and is not worth any amount of money. If anything, being professional means that you will likely have a much better time on the bandstand.







2 thoughts on “Getting into Shape

  1. Becky March 24, 2016 / 10:11 pm

    An honest appraisal. Bravo!


  2. Tim Paxton March 25, 2016 / 4:17 pm

    I couldn’t agree with this more. I have been doing more shows than I care to admit. Way more show gigs over the last 10 years than jazz gigs, casuals, or anything else for that matter. I just finished a six week theatre run on March 1, as a matter of fact. I’m extremely grateful for them, because unlike the typical club gig, I walk away with a real paycheck. I can’t stress enough the importance of developing your reading skills, though. I was always a decent reader, but I’ve really had to up my game since the bulk of what I do are reading gigs, and it’s really competitive here. Like anything else, the more you do it, the better you get..


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