On Being a Professional
About two weeks ago, my partner and I were having a conversation with our midwife, and the topic was gigging and professionalism. Afterwards, it led me think a little bit more about what I consider the foundation of professionalism to be, and what behaviors separate the pros from the amateurs. You see, I believe that most of the hired gigs I've gotten in my life have only partly come from my playing abilities. I think that much of the work I've gotten has come from having a good attitude, and conversely, the bad attitudes of the people I've often replaced. Here are some of my perspectives on the foundation of professionalism in music.
I have been both the musician trying out for a gig, and the person auditioning musicians to hire for a band. Having been on both sides of the situation, I've experienced a wide variety of players and attitudes. One of the most surprising or disappointing issues that comes up is how often I've encountered people that don't adequately prepare themselves for an audition, recording session, or performance. To me, this aspect is the very foundation of a professional, and to miss its mark is a major mistake. To be sure, there are situations like last-minute gigs that can't be prepared for and past a certain point, your raw skills are your only ally. But preparation is what sets the stage for how well we perform, in most scenarios.
Whenever I get hired for a new gig or am being auditioned, I always acquire my source material as soon as possible and get working on it the first moment I can sit down at the kit. Recently, I had to learn twenty of an artist's songs for a gig in about half as many days. All songs were sent to me via dropbox. The moment I got them into my hard drive, I put on headphones and started playing to the songs and taking notes. By the time the one rehearsal before the show came around, I knew the songs as well as I could without having played them in the band setting. I was ready for last-minute changes in the song structure and dynamics and was even complimented on having played the best rendition a couple of the tunes. After that first gig, I was immediately offered three more with the artist and am still playing with him. That is the power of preparation.
Often, the time we have to prepare is very limited so we have to spend that time wisely. I've always had a certain way of making a fast and simple chart for myself, and I generally keep a 'cheat sheet' of the material I'm learning nearby. Sometimes it just comes down to making note of simple things like tempo and stops, other times I might need to lay out the whole song's structure.
The bottom line is that I always try to avoid wasting other people's time with details I could have worked out for myself before I show up for practice, and I always try to show up to a gig feeling confident about the material. It might be nearly impossible to have every nuance of every song worked out your first gig with a new group, but if you have done your homework, you can confidently keep your eyes on the other players and be ready for any twists or surprises that come your way!
I feel like this kind of thing goes without saying. Yet, other drummers' bad attitudes have gotten me more gigs than I can count. I know this because band members or songwriters will actually express to me things like, "the other guy is such a great drummer, but he's so hard to work with!" Allow me to be specific, though. Having a good attitude is not just about showing up with a smile and a clear mind. It's also about not reacting to other people's bad attitudes or imperfections with your own. It's also about taking criticism well (ie. not getting defensive when that awesome drum beat you spent an entire day working out for a song just doesn't do it for the songwriter). A lot of times, having a good attitude involves shutting down the ego and being completely open to doing things a different way than you're inclined to. This can work differently in a band that is yours, where ideas might be democratic. But especially when the songwriter is handing you your cut after the session or gig, what they say goes, and it's important to remember that. There are even situations where the person asking you to change what you're doing doesn't even know your instrument or how to communicate their ideas effectively, but it is our job as a professional to interpret that information in the most constructive way possible to turn it into the best performance possible. Conversely, if you feel really confident that an idea you have is the best approach but aren't being heard, be patient! Sometimes the other musician might need to just have their idea heard first or realize that what they want isn't quite working before you can make that suggestion.
Another note on professionalism is how we commit our time to gigs and rehearsals. I have unfortunately had to interact with more than just a few musicians that did not respect others' time, or failed to see the importance of keeping their word and/or commitments.
The most basic thing is, don't show up late. Not to a gig, not to a rehearsal, not to anything. If you can't show up on time, show up early. Being late is the easiest way to show the musicians you're working with (who all probably have equally busy schedules and places they'd be if they didn't have a rehearsal or gig) that you don't respect them, and next to playing your parts poorly or being an asshole, this is probably the fastest way to get fired.
Also, don't double-book! Keep a calendar. Anytime a band leader or songwriter offers me a gig, the first thing I say is, "Let me check my calendar." I never commit myself to the gig until I am literally punching in the details into a new event in Google Calendar, so that if anything else ever comes up on that same date, I know exactly what is already happening. Another easy mistake is to get the itinerary details wrong. Always make sure to get your load-in, soundcheck, and downbeat times correct. I once was pulled up onstage for a show I was just there to watch because the drummer got the set time wrong.
On the other side of the issue, if you don't really want to commit to a gig, don't be the musician that backs out at the last moment because something better came along. If you don't value a gig enough to commit to it 100%, maybe you shouldn't be taking that gig.
Lastly, being underpaid, doing work on spec, or doing a free gig is never a reason to show up with less than your best attitude. If you're not going to show up with your A-game, you're just demonstrating that you're not that great a player. That's really all you're accomplishing- showing off an unprofessional attitude in public. I've gotten some of my best opportunities by showing up and killing it at a gig that I wasn't getting paid for. That doesn't mean you should take every gig that comes your way. It just means that if you take a gig, give it your all, no matter what.
Upkeep on a kit can be expensive. We definitely didn't choose the cheapest instrument in the band (compare restringing a guitar vs. reheading a drumkit, or picks vs. sticks!), but that doesn't give us an excuse to show up with poorly maintained gear. I don't know about you, but I play worse when the tips of my sticks are chewed up (I get distracted by bad bounces and fluffed cymbal ping), so I always have at least one perfectly new pair of sticks with me. Some of my stands are really old, but they are all in good working order. All my drums on my main kit/snare always have good heads on them.
Now, tuning... Tuning seems to be the bane of many drummers. I have met more that are bad at it than are good at it. Ultimately though, I think this comes from not taking the importance of tuning seriously enough. Let me emphasize: IT'S REALLY IMPORTANT. Especially in the recording studio. Don't even think about showing up to a studio with your own kit unless it's gonna sound the absolute best it possibly can. Don't be afraid to take hours to tune a kit, if that's what it takes (it shouldn't if you've got a good kit and good heads, but the point is, take your time). I have heard some amazing drummers make a bad kit sound really cool, but most of us are just not that amazing. If you have a kit that resonates like the stampeding horses pulling the chariot of the gods across the high-heavens, I'll guarantee you that everything you play will sound better.
Now, I also want to discuss the stick bag. I've had some wonderful opportunities to see some of the best session players in the world at work in the studio, and I've had a look at some of their stick bags. Each player is unique, but the thing I've consistently observed is that the top pros always know how to get the most variety of sounds out of their kit. A sizzle for your cymbals, muffling materials for drum heads, that weird piece of percussion that inevitably gets involved somehow with the floor tom, and a variety of sticks, brushes, and mallets that fit your abilities (I personally have soft, medium, and loud dynamic sticks). All of these tools should be dynamic objects that interact with your kit like an artist's brushes interact with the canvas. We're always going to be a little more technically proficient with some approaches over others, but that should never be the basis of a stylistic decision. I think that the first thing we have to consider when playing on a new stage, tracking a song, and even rehearsing, is dynamics. It's so easy to make a drum kit loud and bombastic, but that is a very limited dynamic range, and unless you're playing in a big venue it often smothers the vocals or other instruments. Approach your playing from the standpoint of what makes the song better.
If I could whittle this whole section down to one sentence, it would be: Know how to make your gear work for you.
Drugs and Alcohol:
I feel like this probably could be sub-categorized into the domain of "Attitude", but it's enough of its own issue that I feel like saying something about it separately.
Now, if you're coming to this blog not really knowing much about me, I should offer to say that I've recently celebrated my ninth year of sobriety. I have been an excessive user of both drugs and alcohol, and I have played witness to many others' habits. I shall avoid any ethical considerations of use and simply observe the reality of use from the perspective of professionalism, because it is a highly prevalent issue in music. Even if you are not the one drinking or using, you will be interacting with people who are.
So first, I would just like to point out what, to me, seems at this point to be obvious: You do not sound better when you are lit. I know, I know, you think you do... but you don't. Yes, there are examples of human beings in the world that have excelled at their craft while belligerently drunk or having been stoned out of their mind, but guess what? That's not you! As a drummer, a couple of things are almost guaranteed to happen when you surrender your sobriety:
1. Your sense time goes to shit.
2. Your technique will become sloppier. Results include hurting your hands and damaging your gear.
3. You will probably do or say something stupid after the gig.
I feel like the results of drugs and alcohol on playing should be self-evident. Just record a rehearsal or a gig when you were not yourself and listen with a lucid mind. All will be revealed. But that doesn't account for after show antics. So let's talk about those two or ten drinks after the show that you're about to have. Because, you're a drummer so... who is getting your kit home? Drumming and alcohol go together poorly. Cars and alcohol are much worse. The funds generated by the number of musicians I know with DUI's could probably fund my local school district for a year. It's insane. I'm so grateful none of them have died or killed anyone else, but seriously, a year's worth of local gigging around town won't pay for the cost of a DUI.
And getting back to the precise topic of professionalism, know your limit. I've met many musicians and music industry people after a show I'd played and that was the opportunity to make a connection. I can't imagine how many opportunities I would have missed if I were the drinker I used to be. Also, I can't possibly remember all the stupid things I probably said to people when I was drunk or loaded, or how it affected their opinions of me. I promise you, nobody will ever judge you for being too lucid, unless they are a person you really don't want to work with.
So anyway, people are going to do what they're going to do, and that's fine. But if you want to be the pro in the room, stay acting like it. If you're going to drink or use, put being a professional musician in front of being a professional drunkard.
Anyway, I think there are probably some other things I could think of, but those are the things that come to mind. There's that joke about the kid that goes to her parents and says, "When I grow up I want to be a musician!" And the parents reply, "Okay honey, well you can only choose one or the other." That's funny and true, especially to a musician. But all pejoratives aside, growing up and handling my musical career professionally has been one of the most rewarding things to have unfolded in my life, and I want nothing more than to encourage my fellow musicians to find the same rewards along their path.