Let’s talk about preparation, in a musical context. I believe that there are three distinct areas of preparation that can be addressed: Long-term musical preparation (technique, general repertoire, connections, etc.), gig specific preparation (learning your specific repertoire, prioritizing trouble spots, gathering information about the gig), and finally the preparations you make immediately before the gig (equipment, transportation, meals, and making sure you have a pencil).
So my big bright idea is to make a three part series addressing each area in more detail. These are all based on my experience and I’d appreciate any criticism you might have for me. So without further delay, let’s start off with the big one…
Or, in other words, all of those years, days, hours, minutes and seconds that you’ve invested into your musicianship. It can be a tricky thing to pin down. Sure, you wouldn’t really be prepared for tomorrow’s gig 10 years ago and similarly you might not be prepared now for the gig 10 years from now. I believe abilities are developed on a continuum and it’s impossible to find the moment where you become competent or even exceptional at a certain skill. So in preparing at the macro level, one must be especially disciplined and willing to grind through struggles with the expectation that you will become the musician you want to be at that moment (though that’s the catch, the satisfaction never lasts). I can’t stress enough that, as a musician, this kind of preparation is invariably the most important and the most difficult.
So you might have received a first class musical education at a top-notch conservatory. Experienced educators handed out assignments that addressed the techniques you needed to learn, or your private instructor tailored a lesson for you. Great, you probably learned a lot and became a better musician. But at some point the guided instruction had to end. Now all of a sudden you are alone, the steward of your continuing musical education. You’ve got this right? You’ve always know that you can improve but if you were like me you probably thought you were a lot better than you actually were. Sadly, you’ve gotta kill that feeling of competence.
Though, before you can improve, you need to find the chinks in your armor. You need to feel weak, you need to be exposed, and you need to be seriously critical of yourself. Simply put, getting better should be hard work, especially if you want this to be your life. This approach might make some people uncomfortable and it definitely goes against the outsiders belief that being a musician is this constant act of catharsis. The reality is that, like anything meaningful, it’s a process. It’s fun, it’s painful, and it changes you.
So how can we learn to be self-critical? While it can be uncomfortable, it’s actually pretty darn easy. Try recording yourself in the situations where you think you are proficient. If you are happy with what you hear you can just move that thing down on your practice priorities and find the next thing. However, if you are anything like me, you’ll will probably be shocked by a lot of little things going on. Since we generally can hear our biggest mistakes in an actual performance, the things that stand out are the details (tone, articulation, feel). These details are the things that separate the great players from the good. Everybody makes mistakes and they are often recorded, but the best players are still in control and aware of what they are trying to do and how it should sound. They are proficient and prepared. Recording yourself can illuminate the areas that need more control. You are going to play anyway, so you might as well hit the little red button while you do it.
Finally the best ways to expose yourself are listening and playing in new situations. This is where the people who skipped school and went on the road and just played should have the advantage over us college snobs. Listening and playing are pretty dependent on each other so I will treat them as a single activity. Chances are if you can’t just show up to a gig and know the standard language, repertoire, and history of whatever genres you are playing, you are not prepared to play them professionally. Now if you have good technical skills and a good ear you might do okay in pretty much any situation, but ironically that ability comes from having played and listened in many situations beforehand!
So let’s assume you have decent skills but no deep knowledge of a genre/gig. You first have to be honest with yourself and admit that maybe you don’t know jazz or rock or whatever as much as you’d like to. That’s always where it starts, then start listening. Listen to records, go see concerts, read about it in online. Just do your homework. Then play along, whether it’s with recordings or maybe you can find some low-pressure groups that can handle your lack of experience and if you are really lucky you could land a gig that you aren’t qualified for and get paid to learn. Though there is the possibility of falling on your face (which won’t be fun) I can’t recommend it enough. Either way, if you are diligent and continue listening and playing you will quickly move into a level of proficiency. Now, the trick is to not stop there.
We can see that our musical lives should be in a constant state of flux. Certainly we will never learn everything we could know, though we can accept that learning and hard work are necessary for any personal or professional advancement. Even though it will probably never happen, objectively, I want to be the best at what I do. That frame of mind doesn’t allow me to hide behind my strengths. I’m not saying to ignore what you are good at or especially that your whole life should be this sadistic journey of mastering all the things you aren’t comfortable with. On the contrary, follow your interests, use whatever momentum you have, but just don’t hide from your weaknesses. Come to accept them and, if you so choose, confront them. In a few months you will have new strengths and new weaknesses you never were aware of. Either way, you will be more prepared for the reality of being a musician.