September 6, 2017

Musician, Know Thy Gig

The first gig I can remember being paid for dates back to 1968, my senior year in high school. I played with fellow classmates in a sax-keyboard-drums trio. The gig was a Spanish Club banquet, and the faculty coordinator of the club gave us $12 to split between us. It was my first experience getting paid to play, and I liked it! Since that time I’ve played every imaginable kind of gig, in various ensembles, at assorted settings.
One type of engagement I play regularly is for alumni functions at local colleges. Most of these gatherings are sponsored by the development office; the most recent one celebrated the grand opening of a remodeled campus building while simultaneously honoring major donors. Though the atmosphere and setting were casual, the college staff were highly motivated to stage a flawless event.
After all these years I still was playing with two other musical partners. This particular trio consisted of keyboard, guitar and drums. Our contract stipulated that we be ready to play at 5:45, and to expect a 20-minute break while speeches were made at the podium.
As we were setting up, a good half hour before the beginning of the event, our contact came up to the band and in good humor deliberately looked at us and counted, “One, two, three,” pointing to each member in succession. It was a way of saying, “I see you are all here, you’re dressed appropriately, and that you will be ready to play at the appointed time.”
Three songs into our set the contact again approached the band and I could tell a comment was forthcoming. Musicians have a short list of complimentary audience observations they like to hear, including, “Nice tunes, terrific guitar solo,” etc. What we heard was, “The volume is perfect.” At that moment I was reminded that the most important thing on this engagement was that people could congregate and have a conversation without shouting over the music.
I am lucky to play with two guys who already know this. Our drummer wisely played with brushes, and our guitarist brought his smallest amp. Some rooms are difficult to gauge, but a glance around the room will make it clear. If people are leaning into each other to talk, it’s time to turn down. Curiously, some of our best musical moments occur in these intimate situations.
Some musicians might be mildly offended by the volume remark, as if that was all that mattered. But you can take pride in yourself and in your fellow musicians that you are capably filling your role, and likely to get called again for another event.
Musicians should take note of the non-musical aspects of performing professionally. This does not mean that what you play does not matter. The very next day I received feedback from this same person remarking on the positive comments he received about the trio. If you want to work more than one time in the same location, keep in mind what’s important to the individual with the checkbook.

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