Last night I had the great fortune to be asked to play with the West Philadelphia Orchestra at a private party. If you haven’t heard these guys before, you’re doing yourself a disservice. WPO authentically plays Balkan tunes with crazy beats and dizzying melodies, literally whipping their audience into dancing frenzies. They are a treat to listen to as well as to play with. Their music is challenging, interesting, and fun as hell!
Right before we played, the host of the party asked us what our craziest shows were like. I’m sure he was thinking of a show where everyone took their pants off or one guy danced for 12 hours straight, but I thought back to the beginning of the year with a different group in which I played a New Year’s Eve gospel show at the Prince Music Theater. The whole thing was pretty poorly run, with rehearsals starting up to an hour late and running over by at least an hour. The charts were hastily written, and the director painfully rehearsed us through problem sections by having us play them over an over again. Overall, the respect for the musicians and their time just wasn’t there. That was a memorable night for me, although not in a positive way at all.
Then the WPO show started, and I got a completely different picture. I’ve only played with the group a handful of times, so my knowledge of the material is rudimentary, especially when the song form gets wild. The big difference in how the show was run, however, was the ease with which I was able to do my job with them. Larry, one of the founders of the group, was right by my side at all times. When the form would meander, he was right on top of the chart, pointing out what needed to happen. That’s no small feat when you have a baritone horn pressed against your face. When a particular rhythm had to be played that wasn’t in the chart, he would conduct it for me in a way that was easy to follow. The rest of the band members were regulars, so it helped that they were also doing their part adding to the rhythm, melody, or feel of each song. I felt like I was a part of a well-oiled machine.
One of the hallmarks of great musicians is that they make it incredibly easy to play with them. Rather than having to constantly watch out for snags and roadblocks, I’m at leisure to do what I want to do, which is just play my best. I have found several qualities that contribute to that ease of playing.
1. Skills of an Artist
There’s a certain level of fluency that we get to as musicians at some point. Before that point, we struggle and doubt what we’re offering. After that point… well, the struggle and doubt probably never goes away, buy we’re able to participate in the musical conversation without hindrance. I haven’t specifically discovered exactly what it is that pushes it over the edge, but once we get there, a whole new world opens up before us. It’s possible that unbridled optimism and confidence play a large role in this.
2. Communication Skills
Being able to explain exactly what you need to happen is vitally important. A good musician needs to be able to hear what is happening and assess exactly what a fellow performer needs to hear to convey what he or she wants. All too many rehearsals get bogged down when a director misunderstands what the problem is and spends the next 20 minutes solving a non-existent problem. I have seen directors have an ensemble play one section repeatedly because “we’re not getting it right,” when I can hear and see the issue is an error in the score. There’s an efficiency of language required as well, to make sure a small problem gets pinpointed and doesn’t end up ballooning.
It goes so much more beyond that though, especially since while you’re playing, you can’t use your verbal skills. I need to be constantly vigilant for clues as to the direction the music might take. This involves listening to what my fellow performers are playing and watching for any gestures they might be making. This ability makes the difference between a good show and going through the motions. I’ve had the misfortune of playing with musicians with their heads in the stand, and whether or not the audience can notice it, I’m bored out of my mind. Being part of a living and evolving ensemble breathes life into the performance and makes it so much more enjoyable to play.
A well-oiled machine has to respect each of its parts and understand where its members are coming from. This is probably why these types of groups tend to be composed of like-minded individuals. Having a common interest outside of the music often leads to a genuine caring and empathy that manifests itself within the music. You then become an ensemble that is striving to work together and incorporate all the talents that each person brings to the table.
Unsurprisingly, these same skills are important in creating any kind of well-oiled machine. Just to run down some examples:
1.) You must have fluent knowledge of your field.
2.) You must be able to efficiently communicate with your co-workers.
3.) You must have a stake in the well-being of your co-workers so you can bring out the best in them and they can bring out the best in you.
1.) You must have sufficient emotional intelligence to understand the tools it takes to make a relationship work.
2.) You must be able to communicate with your partner in such a way that they can and want to hear you.
3.) You must be able to see issues from multiple perspectives to understand where they’re coming from.
1.) You must understand how the game works.
2.) You must be able to communicate with your teammates through your words as well as subtle cues in your actions.
3.) You have to understand the motivations behind the actions your teammates are performing.
When we approach any team-based activity with high-level skills, good communication, and empathy, we transform ourselves into the well-oiled machine. We become a part of a living process that has a stake in the satisfaction of its individual members. Most importantly, we make it easy for our teammate(s) to do the things that we do best, and we have more fun with it in the process. Whether you’re an employee working in a business environment or a dominatrix whipping dancers into a frenzy, take satisfaction in knowing that what you do is a joy for everybody involved.