Every one of us would like to think of himself or herself as a professional, or at least qualified as such, whether or not we’ve committed our passion to a marriage of commerce and talent. But the measure of professionalism is not limited to talent. It’s how you comport yourself on the gig or session. And it’s knowing how to relate to the leader, which may require a well–lived life’s worth of experience to draw from.
I like to tell my students that, in addition to practicing their backsides off, the best way to be sure you ace the gig is to pay strict attention to the person who hired you. That might be the client directly, such as a clubowner or bride’s mother, or it might be the bandleader who in turn works for them. In other situations, it could be the session producer or the booking agency. In each case, the expectations might be slightly different, even if the music you’re playing is exactly the same.
By contrast, if the person who hired you is the bandleader, make sure you don’t start taking orders from the drummer (“Dude, that sounds awesome! Keep wailing through the singer’s next verse!”). Undercutting the musical leader’s authority is just as bad as not following it at all. For many musicians, this is never an issue: it’s obvious who’s calling the shots. But the more you play, the more different situations you’ll find yourself in, and sometimes the lines of authority are less well drawn.
For example, I recently played a gig where the drummer was the leader—the guy who called the tunes and gave the cues—although the lead singer schmoozed with the client and fronted the band. (They were a team, with these skills well delegated.) This created an interesting situation onstage, because at first it wasn’t obvious where to look. The normal thing is to look toward the front of the stage, but the singer offered no direction or support to the instrumentalists. That wasn’t his job, after all. But it created a sense of disorientation on the bandstand.
I like to think that if I wasn’t born brilliant, I am at least a quick study. It was obvious to me early on that the drummer was in total control: He delivered the onstage patter; he counted off the tunes; and he cued the stop–time sections, endings, and vamps with total aplomb. So I quickly adopted the technique of facing outward for most of the song while turning my head to the back of the stage when I sensed there was an “arrangement event.” It was clear the drummer appreciated the effort—and the eye contact. The bass player didn’t seem to grasp this—even after being told—looking to the singer for all his cues, and inevitably missing a stop–time cut or playing through an ending. I continued to work with this team, the bass player did not.
I have seen this sort of confusion in the studio too. Sometimes the boss is in the live room and sometimes she’s behind the glass. In one situation I was in, “the boss” was the songwriter trying to get rhythm tracks down for her demo. She sat in the control room with the engineer. I and the rest of the musicians were in the live room and knew her strengths and limitations well. Yet one musician continued to ask technical questions she couldn’t answer, using terms like “subdominant” (instead of “the F chord”), etc. Worse, when he didn’t get the answer he wanted, he turned to a fellow musician for support, when he should have simply rephrased the question and maintained that direct line of authority. He made her look bad, and so no one was surprised when he wasn’t at the next session.
This is just common sense: If your leader wants to talk about the A minor chord or A minor scale, don’t start spouting off about the submediant and Aeolian. The best producers I’ve worked with know how to adapt their approach to communicate with the boss first, and then with the musicians after a translation process. The lesson is this: Know who the boss is and work in their world. When it’s your gig you can tell everyone to play the Locrian mode over the fifth mode of the harmonic minor. But when it’s necessary, make sure you can also say, “Do you want me to strum the sad chord four times after the happy chord, or three?”