Preparing for Multiple Gigs

Bassist in the spotlight

Q: What advice do you have for making time for all the different gigs that you have to prepare for? I freelance with more than 20 different groups ranging from standards on the upright, to a wedding band (lots of pop soul tunes to learn accurately), to original music and sometimes orchestral reading concerts. It’s difficult to be prepared and do some personal practice! Improving as a musician is important to me and motivates me, but the music I’m always learning for gigs does eat up most of my practice time. I’m sure you deal with this and you travel a lot too!

A: I hear you! Time management becomes a way of being, once a musician becomes somewhat in demand. What follows is my personal method for keeping on top of everything as well as some thoughts on prioritization.

It’s all about the calendar:

Your calendar is your friend. Almost all of us now have live updating calendars in our pockets that sync with all of our devices. My suggestion is to try and maximize it’s potential. I have 11 different calendar categories that are also color coded, so I can get an idea of my day upon first glance.

I organize things into rehearsals, gigs, teaching (different colors for private and Skype vs teaching at my university), travel plans, family related events, Misc, Money reminders (of money due to me by a certain date, for example, or recurring payments that I expect from different types of work).

I also use my to-do list, which automatically moves items on my calendar from one day to the next if they aren’t marked as complete. I use this for items that need to get done soon but aren’t super time sensitive.

I additionally use TripIt to store all of my travel itinerary information and have a live sync set up with my calendar so all events automatically show up. It also alerts me any changes to my flights, which is very handy (delays, gate changes, etc.)

I put EVERYTHING on my calendar. If I’m going to hang with my mom for lunch, it goes on the calendar. What day the trash goes out is a weekly reminder. As a working musician, you know that you can have information and schedules coming at you from all directions (Facebook, email, text, WhatsApp, etc.) It is almost guaranteed that if I don’t add something to the calendar (thinking that I’ll remember), someone will ask about a rehearsal or something during that time and, lo and behold, I see a hole in the calendar and fill it, effectively double booking myself.

I also share my calendars with my wife so she can check my schedule if she wants me available for something. Very handy for those times when she can’t get ahold of me (as long as she updates the calendar or leaves me a text, so I know what’s happening).

A large part of proper calendar efficiency is making sure to look ahead! I am constantly scanning my calendar for the next week (or even month, at times) in order to see how many gigs require prep work and then I immediately block off some time to sit in my office and chart tunes, play through things, print charts.
Knowing how much work you need to do for a gig and blocking off the time allows you to properly plan ahead and make sure that you are always ready to go.

Speaking of charts, I look ahead and print charts far in advance, marking forms with highlighters and sharpies as well as taping pages ahead of time. I also keep a file folder full of many of my current working bands, often pulling charts and putting them into organized stacks days or weeks ahead of time on my desk so I know what music I need to be looking at in advance.

I also have a spot by the door where I prep everything I’m going to need for the next day and have it ready. Bass, charts, iPad, and, if I have a session, my ready-to-travel session Pelican case (with my preferred DI, headphones, extra strings, cables, tuner, and tools), etc. All big gear for the next day is likely in a pile where I store it or loaded in the car before I go to bed.

When traveling (I’m currently in Cyprus and heading to Shanghai in a few days), I make sure to look at everything on my calendar in the weeks following my trip to make sure that I have time to prepare OR prep all the materials I’ll need to shed and bring them with me on the road (scheduling time to shed or transcribe tunes in the hotel, if need be).

I keep track of every article due, every bit of money owed me, how much and by whom for what. I set up calendar alarms to remind me of important things long in advance (outgoing payments due, charts to send for gigs, etc.)

I also pay for online storage so I can have anything digitally available that I might need anywhere at anytime. This includes charts, passport scan, 2×2 passport photos, teaching materials, educational books in PDF format, digital copies of my music and charts, all of my merchandise, charts for every band that I play in (I’ve got 120+ different band folders in there currently. I never delete old bands. Every time I delete something, I wish I had it the next week for something. Digital files are small so I keep them all. You never know!) I even keep copies of old set lists in there.

In short, I try to maximize what’s possible when living in a digital world (with cloud backups as well as physical redundant backups of my laptop). I try to have access to everything I may need and everything that I need to know available at all times while also having allotted the time necessary to be prepared for everything in my calendar far ahead of time.

Now… When one is as busy as you or I am, there comes a point where you absolutely must decide on what takes precedence in your life. (I also block off free time in my calendar as well as hang time with my family and friends, BTW.) If you are going crazy because you want to be practicing and can’t find the time, there is nothing wrong with deciding to slim down your commitments in order to facilitate your own growth and personal needs. Practice that shed time and don’t let anybody take it away from you.

I’ll admit, personally, I can’t remember the last time that I really practiced. I probably average 3-6 hours per day of playing my instrument but most of that is gig preparation, gigging, and some teaching and rehearsing. That works for me as I’ve never actually liked playing bass by myself. I’m not worried about developing more chops or bebop lines, etc. (sometimes I wish I cared more about it but I just don’t). Instead, I focus on over-all musicality, really learning tunes and forms for gigs and just trying to be the best bassist I can while playing with the band. If I have a particularly demanding jazz gig, true, I may brush up on some standards and play through some tunes at home just to get my brain thinking through changes again if I haven’t been doing many jazz gigs recently, but for the most part, I’m just prepping specific charts, music and practicing playing through sets or song lists.

Here is an example of how to keep it on the rails when traveling. I’ve been out for 2 weeks teaching every day at two jazz workshops. One in Beirut and this current workshop in Cyprus. No days off, so I planned to do absolutely nothing but teach for these two weeks. I fly to Shanghai this weekend to support another jazz workshop there but I am only there to play bass for the featured artists. I have a gig with Eric Marienthal and a gig with James Carter but most of my days are free. A week before I flew out for this trip, I looked at my schedule and realized that as soon as I get home, I have two recording sessions and 3 rehearsals for four gigs soon to follow that week-end.

So, here’s how I’ll do it:

  • I made sure to get my actual schedule while in Shanghai and set aside multiple blocks of time to prep music needed after my return
  • I loaded all necessary charts, MP3’s and any text notes sent to me in folders on my laptop before leaving home
  • I packed a practice amp and mini jack so I can shed in my room and play along with demos and songs
  • I plan on practicing everything in the order that It shows in my schedule once I get home. First gigs, first (leaving me time at home if necessary to prep for stuff later in the week, if I can’t get to it beforehand)

I’ll also listen to all of the music on my many hours of butt-in-chair time while sitting on planes while looking through the charts and imagining playing in my mind. It’s amazing how well you can shed mentally once you have a good idea of the fretboard in your minds-eye!

This way, I’ll be locked and loaded for the following week by the time I’m wheels down back home (allowing me some necessary time-zone readjustment down-time since I won’t have to stress about learning tunes as soon as I walk in the door).

I have one day off that week and I’ve already marked in my calendar what gigs need attention as well as prepping for a live-webinar masterclass. (I’ve also blocked off time to hang with the wife and remind her of who I am and remind her that I will continue to share the house with her on occasion).

That reminds me that, when I look at my calendar and it looks like a box of crayons melted on the screen (remember, I color code), it’s generally time to block off some real time off and that is crucial for mental health, emotional energy levels as well as nurturing what’s really important (that family category in the calendar!)

PS – I’m writing this article right now because my alarm went off to remind me that I had a No Treble article due by today. My calendar is the only thing that makes people think I really have my stuff together. My memory is horrible. I can’t remember names until I’ve forgotten it 14 times first, but my calendar makes me look professional. All hail the mighty digital calendar!

Also, use the notes app on your phone.

I keep everything I may need in there (It’s searchable, remember):

  • All frequent flyer numbers and related travel numbers I may need
  • All questions I haven’t gotten to for No Treble
  • List of standards for use when teaching
  • List of anybody who owes me money
  • Important ID numbers (password protected)
  • Topics for clinics, masterclass, etc.
  • Books people recommend
  • Copy of my bio
  • General notes to myself

There’s no reason not to have any bit of information you may need when out and about or traveling anymore. It just takes a bit of time to set up and organize a system but it is worth it 1,000 times over in the long run.

Happy organizing!

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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