Favorite blog posts, January 2018

Just a few to share this month:

Prepping the dumb guy

photo, Corrie

In the practice room, I’m smart, organized, and focused. I’d like to say that this always leads to performances that are relaxed, poised, and confident. But sometimes the smart guy from the practice room fails to show up, and instead a much dumber version of me ends up on the stage: nervous, distracted, and scatterbrained.

It’s my job (the smart guy) to make sure the dumb guy is prepped and ready to go. He’s not much good at thinking on his feet or making good musical decisions, but he’s trainable. So here’s the preparation regimen:

  • Practice in a thorough, methodical way. Not just the hard parts—the easy parts, too, which the dumb guy thinks he can handle but will be prone to boneheaded mistakes.
  • If recordings of the repertoire are available, listen to them over and over. Sometimes when the dumb guy’s reading or memory fail him, his ear can help him through.
  • Include a clear breathing plan in the practice routine. Mark the breaths in, early in the process, and practice them like they are notes. My particular dumb guy tends to breathe in weird places when he gets nervous, so I have to make sure good breaths are part of his muscle memory. (If you have a dumb guy/girl, they might have their own personal quirks that need a safety net.)
  • Make extensive markings. Anything that the dumb guy might forget gets penciled in, in clear and unambiguous terms (no just circling things—the dumb guy can’t always remember in the heat of the moment what the circles mean). If necessary, I even leave him a little reminder a few bars in advance (“big breath coming up,” “keep fingers relaxed,” etc.).
  • Make foolproof arrangements for page turns. Sometimes that means things like making a couple of copies of a page, with some bars completely blacked out so the dumb guy can’t accidentally play past the page turn, or fail to find his place after turning. Sometimes I even leave some instructions in the margin about how to do the page turn successfully.
  • After the recital or concert, I review the dumb guy’s performance to figure out what other holes he managed to fall into, and strategize about how to plug those holes for next time.

If you’re like me, and your IQ sometimes drops a few points under the hot stage lights, make sure you’ve done your advance work so the dumb guy can’t cause too much havoc.

Some useful phrases for gig calls

photo, Daniel Grothe

Here are some phrases that have been useful to me when somebody calls about a gig. When dealing with other professionals (or working through the musicians’ union) mostly these aren’t necessary—the caller should give the needed info unprompted. But many of the gigs in my rural area are one-offs for weddings or school or business events, and I’m dealing with callers who don’t regularly hire musicians.

Let me call you back in five minutes.

This has saved me many times. Sometimes I need a moment to think through the money/mileage/scheduling/etc., or to find a polite way to negotiate the terms or just turn the gig down. It’s fine to put the conversation on pause for a moment and prepare your response. (Or, depending on the caller, to pivot the conversation to text messaging, which gives you more time to formulate responses, plus a record of what was said).

Who will be my contact person when I arrive?

I use this one all the time with, for example, brides who are micromanaging the wedding planning (down to calling the saxophone player). If I arrive at the gig and need to know where to set up or collect my check, it’s going to be awkward for everybody if I have to bother the bride with business details On Her Special Day. If necessary, I gently suggest that she put a trusted friend in charge of answering the band’s questions and handing over their payment.

Who is the musical director?

This one is sort of a trick, because if it’s the kind of gig that actually has a musical director, then it’s less important that I know in advance (and, often, it’s the musical director who is offering the gig anyway).

When I really need this one is when a well-meaning non-musician is trying to hire a band piecemeal (“Oh, my cousin is going to play guitar, and this guy I know from church is going to play drums, and my boss’s friend is a piano player…”). Asking this question gives me a chance to drop the hint that somebody needs to be in charge musically. In some cases, I’m able to segue into some friendly advice that they hire an existing professional group, or hire a professional to put together an ensemble.

Just so I’m totally clear, are you offering me a paying gig, or is this more of a volunteer situation?

I do still get calls asking me to donate my time. While I mostly turn those down, I don’t think it’s helpful to be nasty or condescending about it. Phrasing it this particular way gives the caller an easy multiple-choice question to answer without any waffling or weaseling. And when I turn them down, it seems less like I have refused a direct request, and more like I’m just passing up a chance to “volunteer.”

Can I count on $XXX?

Sometimes less-experienced hirers (such as someone hiring for a business or school event) have a budget range in mind, and (foolishly) tell me what that range is (“Well, we can pay between $AAA and $BBB”). The number they are hoping to pay is the smaller one, but I’ve made the mistake before of fixating on the larger one (and being disappointed later). Always nail down an exact fee. I try to get the top end of the range, of course, but make it worthwhile: “Can I count on $BBB? That way I can be sure to get a great keyboard player.” Or: “Can I count on $BBB? Then I can cancel some lessons that week and have time to look over the music in advance.”

If they are hesitant to commit, you can say something like, “Okay, why don’t you call me back as soon as you have an answer, and we can firm things up?”

Is that the base rate, or does that include travel/doubling/etc.?

If the caller really is thinking in terms of base rates, then I probably won’t need to ask this question. But hirers who aren’t tuned in to this are probably counting on me to walk them through the process of hiring me. Asking this question gives me an opening to educate them that it’s appropriate to pay extra for travel time, or for bringing multiple instruments. (A quick web search for “afm wage scale” will give you at least a rough idea of what the union considers fair for doublers.)

Do you have useful phone strategies for lining up gigs (large or small)? Please share in the comments section.

Review: “Double Troubles” by Paul Saunders

A few months ago I wrote a review of So You Want to Play in Shows…?, a book of woodwind doubling etudes by Paul Saunders. Recently Paul sent me Double Troublesa new collection of etudes. Like So You Want, the new volume includes a piano part plus access to downloadable backing tracks. As I said in the previous review:

This is an elegant solution to one of the problems of woodwind doubling etudes: how do you enforce quick instrument switches? … Saunders’s book, used with the recordings, provides a simple way to work out quick switches alone in a practice room.

Like in the previous book, these etudes are musically interesting and in styles typical of contemporary musical theater. Double Troubles is overall somewhat more challenging, including some saxophone altissimo and flute third octave up to C (though most of the extreme high register playing on both instruments is marked as optional—Paul clarified to me that the upper register is preferable, and the optional 8vbs are to make the etudes more approachable if needed). The book also incorporates soprano and tenor saxophones on some etudes, in addition to the flute/clarinet/alto used in the first book.

Two of the etudes are by guest composers, Darren Lord and Jennifer Whyte. Here’s a quick-and-dirty demo of the tune “Disco Nap,” which is Darren Lord’s contribution:

I had fun playing through these, and recommend Paul’s doubling etude books as one of the best sources of practice material for the flute/clarinet/saxophone doubler.