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Riley Music Academy Music Cast: Rules of engagement

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I’ve had the pleasure of playing quite a few jazz gigs this week, including Birmingham Town Hall last night which was pretty amazing. Halfway through I suddenly realised that I was stood in the same spot as Wayne Shorter a few years ago and I suddenly got a massive wave of humility….and nerves!

Backstage at Birmingham Town Hall with (right to left) Spencer Hedges, Wayne Matthews, Alex Dengate and me.

Its funny to hear comments after the show. I would say the most common question people ask (after: “so whats your real job?”) is: “do you guys play together a lot?”, to which we often reply “Well…yes, but we all play in different bands and meet up from time to time.” We never like to be brutally honest and say “No, we haven’t rehearsed before, we had no idea what tunes we were going to play and most of the band I met for the first time today!”

This is often the case for freelance musicians. It’s sometimes nicknamed a ‘scratch’ band. It has a ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ quality which is thrilling but it can sometimes be disastrous!

As with most professions, it’s often fine if you know what you are doing. So I thought I would give you some insider tips and tricks to help you through if you ever find yourself in this situation. I will also point out some of the common errors that people make.

  1. Don’t be a $*@%! – Play nice. I play much better when I’m with friends. If someone is belittling my playing or just being rude, my inspiration spirals downward and I close down. Its nice to be nice! If you hear something that sounds good, compliment them with a smile or a “hell, yeah!” (if they’re playing a wind instrument DO NOT slap them on the back!)
  2. Keep the form – A lot of people think that improvised music is completely random; it’s not. 9 times out of 10 it follows a clear direction and if you screw around with it, thats when things go very wrong, particularly if you’re not on the ball.
  3. Play by the rules (bend them a little!) – As with keeping the form above, there are many musical rules and most musicians tend to follow them. Its like playing a game, the rules make it easy to play and assess. If you suddenly start cheating or doing something radical then it annoys people. That being said, its always funny to cheat a little a little bit so like the banker in Monopoly stealing 100′s, you as a musician can bend the time, the key, the harmony or whatever other rule you can think of. An element of cheeky playfulness is a good thing in my book!
  4. Eye contact and body language – Its nice to see a player close his or her eyes and lose themselves in the music but its also a bit scary if you don’t trust that they will look up at the right time. Eye contact can give directions, ask questions or just offer reassurance. Body language is used in a similar way and it also adds a visual aspect for the audience which is a joy to watch.
  5. Follow correct etiquette – I’ll be specific on this one. How many choruses can you solo over? The answer is pretty easy – 1 if its a long form or a ballad, 2 is standard and common courtesy (to the audience and the other musos who want a solo), 3 if you are really cooking and 3+ only if you are a god or you need to spin the tune out for a bit longer! A bass player friend of mine once said if you can’t say what you want in 2 choruses then don’t bother playing in the first place! A little harsh perhaps?
  6. Allow people to talk – I always go on about this. Leave               space! No one likes a jabber mouth at a party so don’t be the musical equivalent!
  7. Clear points of focus – think of the band sound and do your job. If its your solo then play like its your last day on earth. If someone else is playing the tune….dont detract from it. People often try to add, add, add to make it sound fuller. Listen to Ahmad Jamal for an amazing example of how taking stuff away makes it sound better!
  8. Don’t fall asleep – this especially applies to drummers but it can apply to everyone. If someone tries to speed up – don’t let them. If someone loses the form – show them the way back. Do not be complacent and just play what is necessary. Listen and react. Not only will it sound 100% better but it will make the gig far more enjoyable.

Do you agree with this? Leave a comment below


6 Comments Add a Comment
  1. Mark Larson
    October 20, 2016

    Excellent – great advice!! I think I’ve learned all of these the hard way.

    I’d add “never assume”. Don’t assume that a tune called is going to be in ‘your’ key. Always check! Never assume everyone can do what you can. If you can play 26-2 at 280 BPM great don’t assume everyone else can. Music is a mutual endeavour – get the best out of everyone and don’t (whether by accident or design) make someone else look bad.

    I also like “don’t make the audience nervous”. If someone makes a mistake don’t draw attention to it. Don’t apologise – especially BEFORE you play the tune but probably not after either and don’t try to lower the audience’s expectations with self deprecating comments.

    If you’re working with a non-professional singer chances are they have no idea what keys they sing in! Be prepared!

    Oh – and (reed players) always make sure you have your reeds with you! I’m not the only person to turn up with no reeds. The brilliant pro Tony Kofi did it only a couple of weeks ago (so I don’t feel so bad).

    Finally – get in tune!

    • Jay
      October 21, 2016

      Yes, yes, yes Mark!

  2. Frank langley
    October 20, 2016

    Very impressive

    • Jay
      October 21, 2016

      Thanks Frank

  3. Gordon
    October 23, 2016

    Thanks Jay – very good advice!
    And I’d just like to agree with Mark – never apologise! Most of the audience won’t notice – and sometimes mistakes sound good – but an apology always sounds lame.

    • Jay
      October 24, 2016

      im glad you liked it Gordon.

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