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Another Side Of Prep: Checking Egos At The Door & Entering With The Right Mindset

"My take has always been to prepare for each gig as if it were an audition, because it just might be."

If you’ve read my previous articles over the years, you’ll know that attitude figures prominently in many of my themes. It’s such a critical factor that I’ve seen it make or break careers, or at the very least, prospects for advancement and even for getting the next gig.

What comes to my mind first in this context are the situations that perhaps don’t seem like opportunities but end up being noticed one way or another. For instance, as a string player, a fair amount of my gigs are wedding ceremonies. I relish this work because ceremonial music is one of the most important types of music in terms of its effect on people, and nothing quite says “this is a special event” like live musicians.

Each wedding is likely (hopefully) to be that couple’s only one, and the only time that particular group of people is all together in one place. It’s one of the most important days in the lives of those families, and yet I’ve found many musicians who don’t care for wedding gigs, only taking them for the money.

In some cases, they don’t prepare properly, thinking “this is only a wedding gig” and then don’t practicing their parts thoroughly. This manifests itself in particular these days because it’s fashionable to ask a string quartet to play a mixture of classical music, classic songbook material, and some of the couple’s favorite pop songs. Think Pachelbel’s Canon, At Last, and Despacito.

Many professional classical musicians can read difficult music on the spot, but nearly every pop song is full of heavily syncopated rhythmic material that is sometimes outside their wheelhouse. The performance suffers as a result. What perhaps isn’t obvious to them is that the audience knows these songs and will realize, even if only subconsciously, that something isn’t quite right.

My take has always been to prepare for each gig as if it were an audition, because it just might be. We never know who’ll be in the audience – perhaps someone who can hire us for bigger and better things, or not! But even without that factor, the audience is ultimately who pays the check.

Now, what’s the closest equivalent in the world of live sound? Perhaps providing a portable PA for a smaller gig (like a wedding), or maybe filling in for someone at a one-off for a non-profit. How should we approach such gigs? If our attitude is in the right place, they’re the only thing happening in the world at that time – because for the audience, they are.

Get What You Pay For?

A story that comes to mind from my touring sound days is a show in White Plains, NY, serving as the house engineer with the Airmen of Note (the Air Force big band jazz group out of Washington, DC). It was like any other gig – in a different hall, with a different pain-in-the-butt load-in, different technical challenges and a different audience. In other words, standard operating procedure, and we came to overcome and deliver.

A particular problem, however, was that the hall was being provided for free by the local sponsor. Well, it shouldn’t have been a problem, but that was the point: ownership/management of the hall decided that “because they were doing it for free,” they wouldn’t turn on the heat but instead would “keep the doors closed and retain the heat from last night.” Yes, this was during winter.

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There were other examples of non-helpfulness, such as not dimming the house lights when the band took the stage, and when I confronted them about it, noting that the singer actually had to wear a coat on stage because she was freezing, the reply was “well, you get what you pay for and we’re doing this for free.”

I countered with “that’s no excuse not to do your job,” after which I was treated to some colorful language as well as vague threats to my personal safety. Here’s the question: If someone’s not prepared to do the job properly, with all the required preparation and follow-through, then why take it in the first place?

And please don’t say “money” because sometimes these gigs are for free. Again, the audience doesn’t know the backstory. They expect the curtain to open at 8 pm and to experience a professional show, meeting, panel or performance, whatever the context.

We know that promoters, non-profits, and clients of all stripes can (and do) take advantage of vendors. Thus it’s entirely okay to say “no” and move on when the situation warrants it. There’s no real reason any of us should ever take a gig that’s beneath our pay rates (other than for charity) and standards of quality or safety.

But once we do agree to take a gig, it’s time to get our chops up to speed, do properly prepare (see “Proper Prep” from LSI March 2019), assemble and check the right gear for the project, and in general, make sure our attitude is in the right place. In other words, hold ourselves to a high standard because this really is the product we are selling. It’s our personal brand. Nine times out of 10, it’s been my observation that the people and companies that show up early, fully prepared, with the can-do attitude are going to be the hired for the next gig, and then the next.

What It Takes

In the heyday of big recording studios in the past – and probably still today – the guild system served as a primary way to bring new people into the fold. Someone who wants a job but isn’t willing to make coffee, sweep floors, run errands, and park cars can’t be trusted to connect a console let alone mix a song.

The same goes in professional sound reinforcement for those that aren’t willing to learn how to properly coil a cable or properly lay gaff tape. But after that, it’s the care we bring to each and every situation that really sets us apart.

Let me repeat: we must care about the gig, and not just because of the paycheck (or lack thereof). The difference really is noticeable to those that are in charge, whether they know anything about sound or not. However, even if no one else notices, we do.

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