what pros do

Things Top Professional Musicians Rarely Do

Jack Black

Jack Black

I've noticed a few things in my years as a working musician. One is the difference between the busiest working musicians in town verses the musicians that perhaps don't get as many gigs as they would want. I'll just cut right to the list but keep in mind I'm not trying to bash anyone, just letting you know what I've come to realize as a list of things the best working musicians never seem to do. 

1. Show Up Late -There may be an unwritten rule that the better you are at your instrument the more leeway you get in terms of slacking off. If someone shows up ten minutes late but nails all the parts, it's easy for the band leader to cut them slack. However, when I think of the best players I've ever worked with, they seem to be great players AND show up on time. Yes as musicians we tend to put punctuality further down the list than most, but when it comes to being a pro, being on time is a constant. 

2. Show Up Unprepared -You'll almost never see a pro musician have the "deer in the headlights" look during rehearsal. Especially these days when pretty much everyone is accessible through text and email. A pro will usually show up with a majority of the music in their heads and if not they'll have a few charts or notes to help out. Sure you'll always have those "jobbers" who can seem to just figure out songs on the fly, but that's extremely rare and not always ideal. For example, I was in a cover band and we had a bass player show up not having rehearsed even one of the songs. Even though he got through it pretty well, our singer was a bit peeved that most of the bass lines were just improvised and the actual parts were neglected. He never got a call back. As my friend Mark Mallman says, "Rehearsal is where you play the songs that you should have already 'practiced' at home." 

3. Noodle While On Stage -One thing that screams, "I'm an amateur!!!," is the act of noodling while on stage. While the rest of the band is discussing the song arrangement, you'll see that one player with their volume all the way up practicing their parts or worse, just making noise. Don't do this, it gives the rest of the band the impression that you're scatterbrained, unprepared, stuck in your own head, and maybe even kind of a dick. ;) If you're trying out for a band, this is a sure killer of chances. 

4. Blame Others For Their Mistakes -You'll never hear a pro musician say, "Oh I would have nailed that solo but the bass player messed me up with that spinning rock kick!" Nope, a pro will take it on the chin and use the experience as a chance to learn. Yes there will be times when you study your ass off, learn your parts note-for-note, play it perfect, but someone else in the band messes up. Unless you're the leader of the group you should just carry on. Hopefully the leader knows where the problem lies, it's not your place to call anyone out. 

5. Overstep Their Role -I am so guilty of this. Because I teach music for a living I used to always make suggestions to the band about how we could improve the songs; I couldn't get out of "teacher mode." Over the years I've learned to keep my damn pie hole shut and recognize who is making the calls. Try to find out who the leader of the band is and respect their wishes, and if they're totally democratic about decisions, hold your tongue unless you feel you really have a valid suggestion. You'd be surprised how many people, myself included, want to make suggestions just to feel like they're contributing something. Though they may be well-intentioned suggestions, you don't always have to have a say. You wouldn't believe the enormous weight that lifted off my shoulders the day I gave up trying to make all the calls. 

6. Have Gear Issues -Okay, I'm writing this just weeks after I forgot my guitar strap at the rehearsal space and had to borrow one at a show. That being said, a pro musician will rarely have gear snafu's at gigs. They know what to bring and are usually prepared for many potentially ugly situations. A bass player friend of mine actually brings his "emergency suitcase" to every show. In it, he has everything he, or sometimes his band mates, could need in case of a problem. I think he has strings, fuses, batteries, straps!, picks, and probably even a Rambo knife in that thing. Try and imagine all the things that could go wrong and prepare for them. A show can come to a screeching halt at the death of a single tube or a bad wire. 

7. Overplay -Yet another issue I, and many guitarists, struggle with. Deep down we all want to play well and make our group better with our contribution. This can lead to overplaying. Yes the human ego can cause this, and often does, because it feels it has something to prove at all times. Overplaying or playing too loud can be a real pain for your band mates, and often the sound tech. I remember hearing a cover band play a slow-tempo classic rock song and when the solo section hit, the guitar player neglected the melodic solo (that's actually in the song) and started rippin' sweep arpeggios at full volume. Journey's Lights never sounded so painfully aggressive. Try and be aware of your musical role within the song. Listen beyond your part and hear the band as a whole. Ask yourself, "If I were mixing this song in a studio, would I want my guitar to be this loud?" I think my sound tech would say I'm getting better at this...I don't know though, I usually can't hear him when I'm playing. ;) hehe

8. Overindulge In Booze or Drugs -This can vary quite a bit, since some people can handle (and sometimes play better on) various amounts of mind-altering substances. I'm just talking about when it begins to diminish the player's ability to perform. I'll never forget a metal show we played when we were teenagers. The headlining band had a little too much time to kill before the show, and their lead guitarist had a bit too much of the "good medicine." Forget about playing his usual intricate solos, the guy couldn't even stand up. He had to actually lean against the back wall to keep from toppling over. His band mates weren't too impressed either and I heard he got a severe tongue-lashing after they left the stage; and now that I think of it, I think they may have broken up after that incident. Pro players know their limits and usually stay within them. If not, it's probably because they're playing some small bar in the middle of Wisconsin, and got a hotel there for the night. ;)

9. Bring Negative Vibes to the Group -Once again, if you're a complete badass at your instrument you can get away with being a little "edgy," but it seems like the best of the best aren't like this. In fact, they all seem to be on this "Cloud 9" state of mind. Seems to be some sort of enlightened musician vibe that I'm constantly trying to figure out. Most of the musicians that do bring the "dark energy" to bands end up band-less fairly quickly, unless that musician is the leader of their own band. You can spot the dark energy folk immediately by their words. They'll be the ones bad-mouthing other musicians, former (and current) band members, and are always bitching about something out of your control. So lighten up, try to bring some light to the band, and maybe someday you'll achieve that Cloud 9 mind. If you do, let me know how you did it. :)

10. Double-Book Themselves -And again I have to rip myself for being a hypocrite. In my defense, I haven't double-booked myself in a while now ever since I figured out Google Calendar. A pro will always have their calendar on hand, especially in this digital world, and know exactly when they're available. I can't think of a time when one of the elite players in town ever called and said, "Oh shit guys, I just realized I already have a gig tonight, sorry but you're on your own!" If they did double-book, they let you know far in advance and/or find you a replacement player. So keep track of your dates and make sure you're always looking a week ahead to avoid any upcoming scheduling catastrophes. 

I'm sure there are many more things pro musicians rarely do, but I'm tired and have to practice so, until next time. -Mike G