The Quest For Excellence

It’s a given – we’ve all learned enough about our instrument/s to get up the courage to go out and start gigging. Forever after it’s a constant struggle to be better at what we do, to hone our craft. That is every musician’s lot from the beginning to the end of our careers.

Why doesn’t this apply to other people in our industry?

I had contact back in June from a lovely group of people up the northern end of Tasmania who want me to come and play a solo concert show for them next month. (Friday Nite Folk – I can’t wait – it’ll be great fun!) In order to make sure  I cover my costs, I put out feelers for another gig in the region. I got in touch with a  young man I’ve met a couple of times for a regular night he books and we settled on the date I needed. That date was confirmed by another musician friend of mine who lives in his area a few days later. Fantastic! My mini tour is set up, and I know my costs are fully covered.

Last week (six weeks out from the gig) I found out my covering gig hasn’t been booked. There is no apology, attempt to explain – all I’m told is the night is booked – and not for me. With a bit more investigation, it seems I’m not the first musician to have their dates canceled without notice. Now don’t get me wrong, this guy is (in my experience of him) a really nice young fellow. “He’s just a bit disorganised”, is what everyone says of him.

A friend told me during the week of his experiences in northern England back in the 80’s, though I think you could transfer this to any part of the planet and any time period. Young guys who ended up as bookers for clubs because it provided them with entertainment in their local bar, free booze from the venue and a chance to “pull birds”. The actual  booking and management of their work was an afterthought, and my friend had several experiences of turning up to play a show only to find they’d been double-booked by someone who couldn’t keep their schedules straight.

It’s something we’ve all been through I’m sure but it’s caused me to think about the levels of professionalism that exist in our industry for people out of the spotlight – bookers, managers and agents – and how we as performers can help improve them.

There are quite a few organisations and publications that cater to this: in Tasmania CMST have run management forums and I know are interested in improving local standards, MMF Australia which is linked directly to the IMMF and provide brilliant workshops and resources to people at all levels.

At a base level however, all the workshops and books in the world won’t change ingrained habits. It’s the old “you can take the horse to water but you can’t make it drink” scenario. People have to want to change their behavior.

And that’s where we come in, we have the power of the word……. if you as a performer are unhappy with your treatment by a booker – complain to their venue management.

Speaking up is so important not only in our self management as artists but also in being clear in our business communication. I know people are often unwilling to complain because they’d rather have a badly organised gig than no gig at all and they’re frightened of being punished by a booker for complaining to their management. Anyone who threatens a performer in that manner is engaging in workplace bullying and should be reported immediately.

So friends, be clear in your communications, and if you have cause to complain keep it on a business footing – don’t get personal, it’s tacky and unprofessional. Speak up and be heard, for the sake of improving your business dealings as well as your music!

Live at The Peacock Theatre, Hobart (Photo by Saria Philips)

Performing v Teaching – The Great Divide

“I Want It All!!!”

Every since I can remember there’s always been a debate as to what musicians should do – perform or teach.

As a small child I recall being present when my father (possibly the finest musician I’ve ever met) was discussing with a couple of performer friends the merits of his teaching work, who were shaking their heads sadly. The implication was that he’d somehow sold out by going down the teaching route. He was still performing at that stage too!

I don’t remember this but apparently they asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up and (true to form) said I wanted it all!

The story goes like this. If you teach, you must be a second rate performer and if you perform you can’t ever be a decent teacher. Personally, I’ve always found it a vacuous argument – I do both and have done for many years. How well I do them is a matter of conjecture of course, but I have managed to balance the two – and I believe I am a better performer and music educator for the experience.

I know most of my students would tell you that they come to me because I am a performer and understand what it takes to be that kind of musician.

Recently, I had a phone call from a family member, who took the teaching route after graduating from a prestigious Australian music conservatorium. She teaches at an International School in South East Asia and many people I know would be jealous of her career and lifestyle. Nevertheless, a touring musician made a thoughtless remark at a concert she recently attended that amounted  to saying teaching was second rate compared to the exciting life of touring.

Touring is hard work. Yes, it’s exciting going to new places and playing to new audiences but very risky financially, physically very draining and (no matter what anyone says) can be grindingly dull when you’ve played so many dates you can’t recall what town you’re in anymore. These days I try and break up my performance schedule with a little time off, a day for relaxation and sleep and just playing tourist or catching up with friends or family. Fellow Tasmanian musicians The Sign are a good case in point. Currently touring in the US, they’re making it a road-trip holiday and family get together plus a very slick and professional music tour. Smart people!

In many respects I think teaching is the harder gig. One-to-one or groups, students hang on your every note and word, and they’re very happy to question if  you do anything that might contradict what you’re trying to get across! The process of educating for me is a different kind of performance, with it’s own specific skill set. And it must be said that just because someone is a brilliant live performer that does not follow that they will be an equally brilliant educator!

For me the old “those who can, do – those who can’t, teach” chestnut just doesn’t stack up – I love both and will continue to educate and perform to the very best of my ability.

If you want to read more, this 2007 blog from professional double bass player & educator Jason Heath is recommended.

I’ll finish by quoting US classical pianist Joshua Nemith;

The path to a narrow musical career is paved with good intentions. Today, more than ever, that path needs to widen rather than permanently branch into two unconnected avenues: educators who are not performers, and performers who are not educators.