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Gigging Life: Elevating Your Game with the Right Musicians (or Vice Versa)

Eagles and turkeys

Q: I’ve found myself in somewhat of a middle-ground with my gigs. Some gigs I have are with much better musicians than me, and I find that I actually play better with these guys. But many more of my gigs are just your everyday bar gigs. I’m noticing that I just can’t play the same way when the musicians around me are not up to my level. I’m not trying to have an attitude, but I do find myself wondering if I should only play gigs which elevate my playing?

A: You aren’t alone. I think many of us can relate to what you’re saying, through similar experiences.

When you play at the level of those around you – when those people are at or above our level – there’s this fantastic feeling of musicianship and an amazing flow of ideas. But in the “bar band” setting you’ve mentioned, those flowing ideas tend to slow to a trickle, and while we can still play, it isn’t inspired playing.

When the music around us is uninspiring in one way or another, we are, in turn, uninspired and regress to old habits, patterns and/or licks. If the other people in the band can’t listen and react to you in a natural and musical way, we have nothing to feed on. If the drummer has bad time, nothing we play will feel good to us and the ideas will stop.

While this can be hugely frustrating and somewhat deflating, try not to let it get to you too much. Of course, everyone’s situation is different, but I’ll share my views:

Every musical opportunity is an opportunity to grow in some way or another.

There is always a way to make a gig challenging for yourself, in a constructive way. You can take the opportunity to test yourself in different ways.

For example, if it’s a blues gig and you are going crazy playing the same lines night after night or week after week, try changing up your fingerings to challenge your fretboard abilities.

If the drummer has bad time, try talking to him and getting him to follow you and test your time by virtue of your ability to guide the drummer along and keep him on track.

Find a way to challenge yourself in whatever context it is that you find uninspiring.

Don’t take every gig, if you don’t need it.

If you have a day job and don’t rely on every $75 gig to pay your bills, you can probably get a little more selective.

However, you still need to play (and playing with other people is always better than just practicing by yourself), so don’t just quit every gig you have that you don’t enjoy and find yourself without any.

Again, try and use it as an opportunity. Maybe you could try and make suggestions and guide the band along and try and teach them in one way or another, what you have learned. Don’t be holier than thou about it either. Just lead with a gentle hand and make suggestions here and there. Bring in music that might inspire them or give them ideas (or which might to help and make a point as to what they need to work on).

Find more productive musical outlets.

If you have enough regular work with the quality of musicians that you prefer, then maybe it could be an opportunity to take a few nights off and spend the time practicing, writing or even making YouTube videos to get yourself out there and/or help to educate others. Just make sure that if you take more time for yourself, that you do something constructive with that time. Make better use of it than you would have gigging.

I’ll admit, I have bowed out of quite a few gigs because they were embarrassing or painful in some way, but I would generally prefer to be gigging than not so I do still take many B- and C-level gigs, simply because I love to play (and every dollar counts when music is your day job).

Here’s another way of looking at it, based on opportunities and experiences:

  • The mediocre jazz trio offer a chance to practice playing through changes in a low pressure environment (and to try things like emulating one player or another to explore different ways to approach the music).
  • The mediocre blues gigs offer a chance to reinforce the roots of most of the music we play.
  • The mediocre rock gigs offer us a way to have fun doing something different (if you don’t do many rock gigs, that is).
  • The mediocre singer-songwriter gigs are a chance to practice supporting the song with restraint.

It is a matter of perspective.

You may find approaching these lesser gigs with this mindset that you’ll elevate those gigs by what you’re doing. Keep this in mind: when you play with better musicians, it elevates your game. Be the better musician in these situations to help elevate the musicians around you in the same way.

Now, if a band is just outright horrible, then yeah… stay home and practice or spend a night with a loved one or friend. It’s always a call to be made on a case by case basis. There’s no sense torturing yourself.

As I’ve said many times, always remain humble and give every gig you take the respect that you’d hope for if it was your own gig. If you take the gig, do your job the best you can do it. Lead by example and always try to be the side-man that you would want to hire!

Readers, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this too. Please share them in the comments.

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