For a solid year and a half, I’ve been playing a ton of traditional jazz with a variety of different groups. Most times I just show up, I’m handed a few loosely scribbled charts, and away we go. The charts typically have the chords on them and that’s it. Occasionally I’ll get one with a melody, but it’s not usually necessary, partially because I rarely play the melody, and partially because the song/arrangement is simple enough that I don’t need to see it. Very rarely, I’ll have a fully written chart, and usually that’s just a guideline of what I should be playing anyway.
Last night I had my first gig with a the Ben Mauger Orchestra at the Constitution Center for the Bootleggers Ball. Unlike the usual ragtag and loose bands I play with (and please understand, I do not mean that derogatorily at all!), these guys were reading detailed arrangements written out on sheet music. The last time I played in a large ensemble with written-out charts was probably about a year ago, and that was with an orchestra. As soon as I realized what the situation was, I knew I’d have to change my game plan a bit.
SPOILER ALERT: The night went swimmingly.
The band was really solid, and I was able to blend in with their sound while adding my own signature to it. I’m hoping to get asked back to play again, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they did. What allowed me to be successful in the gig was the culmination of years of experience performing with and learning from professionals. I’d like to share the skills that made it possible for me, and where they come from. If you’re a seasoned professional, you know a lot of these already, but it’s good to identify them and reinforce them from time to time. And if you’re not a professional, well, here are some steps to make you a professional. So let’s start at the beginning.
Show Up On Time!
I went into detail about this in one of my first posts, so I won’t do it too much more here. But err on the side of early, even if it’s way early. That way when your car breaks down in traffic on your way to the train that was cancelled, you might still get there before the baton drops. Also, you get to see what you’ll be playing, where you’ll be sitting, who you’ll be sitting with, where the bathroom is, where the free drinks are, who is going to validate your parking, and how to escape if all goes wrong. I left an hour in advance to give time to catch the train and subway, and I arrived about 30 minutes early. We then started later than advertised. It doesn’t matter. Get there with plenty of time to spare.
Watch the Roadmap
In one of my more memorable tuba lessons with Don Harry at Eastman, he described the process for sightreading in an orchestral audition. His description was something like this: “You’re called out on stage. Make your way to the chair where a stand is waiting. At this point, one of the audition committee members is going to start going through their paperwork to make sure everything is in order, and they may say a few cursory things to each other. But you’re ignoring everything the entire time. You’re just looking at the sightreading they left on the stand, studying it for key signature changes, repeats, tempo, tricky spots. Those extra 20 seconds can give you an edge over the people who aren’t paying attention.”
Before each song last night, as the rest of the band was changing the music on their stands and the band leader was giving instructions for the solos, I was deep in concentration. I was figuring out the tempo (often quite a feat… what does “Slow Foxtrot” mean?), checking for key changes, watching for harder spots, and looking for repeats, segni, and codas. That helped to eliminate most of the embarrassing pitfalls I could have fallen into (crap, we’re in Db major now!). Learn to scan for those important pieces in advance.
Know How Most Roadmaps Are Structured
This one comes with experience, but if you know the typical structure of the songs in a genre, then you can fill in the gaps when you’re overwhelmed. Let’s take for example a song I played last night, Burnin’ the Iceberg:
Great fun song… with a very challenging tuba part. And I’ll be honest, I did not play it note for note last night. I did, however recognize the form of the song and fill in the difficult lines with something similar, but playable on the spot. The end result was that the flow on the song was uninterrupted, and only those who were intimate with my part might have known the difference. By knowing the sousaphone’s role in the band, I knew what I could and couldn’t omit, and what I needed to replace parts with.
This was also a handy tool when I came across some errors in my part. I was able to quickly hear the error and correct the part in subsequent passes through the song. For this, I’m always reminded of my freshman music theory teacher, Norman Carey. In one of our first classes, he told us that theory was important to know not just for abstract concerns, but in practice. To demonstrate, he started playing a Beethovenesque sonata on the piano leading to a cadence (a resolution back to the home key of the music). Right before he got to the very last note, the resolution, of the cadence, he stopped, turned the page on the music stand, and then played the last note. His point is that we should know that a cadence is coming from the context of the music around it, not just because it’s written on the page.
Again, we improve in this area mostly from experience, but it’s a good concept to be familiar with. It all begins with listening to what’s happening around you.
Did you just lose a measure back there because of a tough part? Keep playing! Keep an eye on when the measure changes! Play a bunch of notes in rhythm! Play the root of the chord in whole notes! Just. Don’t. Stop!
Be Humble, Generous, and Gracious
Despite the multitude of sociopaths in the media today, in these types of gigs your job is to blend in with the ensemble. Don’t stand out with outrageous egotistical performances. A former bandmate of mine made a point of turning his trumpet solo into a screamfest every chance he could.
Compliment your bandmates on their performances. If someone just nailed it, let them know then or at the break that you liked it. Musically, stay out of their way when they’re in the spotlight.
Finally, thank the band for having you. Let them know you appreciate their asking you to join them and that you had a good time (unless, of course, you didn’t. File that one under bad gigs).
As musicians, our livelihood depends on being a reliable, quality performer. I often make the mistake of equating “quality” with “perfect.” Regardless of whether perfection is an attainable state, it doesn’t really matter. I am who I am at this moment, with my skills, talents, and intuition in their present state. It is with these tools that I am able to succeed, improve, and live to see another day.