Gig Gone Bad: How to Recover
Guest post by Stacy England
I'm excited this week to feature my first guest post! Stacy England and I have known each other since we were kids. We both pursued careers in music, and Stacy has built a diverse entrepreneurial career for herself. In response to my recent blog post, Say Yes, she said, "[Music is]... a word of mouth business based on reputation and referrals. Self-confidence and the chops to back it up [make] the difference." I found that entrepreneurially-minded analysis to be spot on. So in the search for my first guest poster, it was the perfect opportunity to invite Stacy to write about the "gig gone bad," a topic she suggested. (And it seemed like Stacy might have a story or two, as I suspect most musicians do.) I think you will find Stacy's perspective on this key aspect of building a sustainable music career insightful. Here's what she has to say.
“We must expect to fail... but fail in a learning posture, determined not to repeat the mistakes, and to maximize the benefits from what is learned in the process.” ~Ted Engstrom, American Author
To err is human, to forgive is divine as the saying goes; however, as a hired professional musician, to err is greatly frowned upon and leaves a lasting MARK!
This blog entry discusses, from a professional violinist’s point of view, in short, the failures that can happen leading up to and during a gig and how to prevent, manage and recover from the fallout.
Practice makes perfect
Rehearsals are the perfect place for red pencil marks on manuscript, breaking in a bow, new strings, or cake of rosin. We expect to sit together for a four hour session scrutinizing sections, analyzing bowings, discussing the intention of the composers’ markings, etc., in order to express his masterpiece and captivate the audience with the portrait of sounds worthy of ovation and encore.
We return to our home studios where for days we’ll saw away accompanied by metronome and recordings, perfecting fingering and bowings, pushing past assigned tempo, quickly moving from cognitive to psychomotor eventually arriving at affective awareness. Yes! Ready for next week’s run through at dress rehearsal and the shows.
For a ringer, however, we don’t have weeks of rehearsal with the orchestra; we’re brought in for dress rehearsal and the show many times having seen the sheet music only a day before or having to sight read. After all, that’s why we get hired in the first place. A professional needed to fill in holes in the orchestra, supporter and bearer of confidence to our sections, a super-stringer if you will. Perhaps that last part was a bit DC Comics, but who wouldn’t want a superhero versed in Music, Dance, and Theatre?
Rest assured, on the day of the show we professionals are more than prepared, or at least we should be! Traditional black suits pressed, patent leather shoes shined, instruments polished and oiled. Sheet music arranged, warmed up; Curtain’s up! Applause, rise for conductor, nod to concertmaster, “A” for tuning, director signals bows at the ready, downbeat! Overture.
But this is about the gig gone badly, right?
For all of our planning and conditioning, can we help ourselves not to fall victim to the dreaded mistake or bad luck which occurs at the most inopportune time: the gig? Yes! Some of the failures that happen during a performance are well within our control and most certainly preventable. Others, however, are not.
Daily inspection and proper seasonal maintenance of your instrument, equipment and accessories can make all the difference between a successful gig and one fraught with failures. A bad cable, fraying string, missing sheet music, all amateur mistakes, can still plague even the most seasoned player if they aren’t organized and attentive to their inventory of supplies, their quality and condition. In addition, time management is critical in your approach to understanding your parts, developing muscle memory, and prompt arrival at call time.
For example, I once arrived at a rehearsal having left my bow behind at a studio. Fortunately, my stand partner had an extra. Note to self: carry two bows. MARK one.
Another time, early in my career, I noticed a groove forming in my violin's G-string, but the strings were relatively new so I opted not to change them. Act one, scene two, the string snapped! I had to borrow my stand partner’s violin through the rest of the scene since I was the hired soloist. Note to self: listen to instincts and bring an extra set of broken in strings on stage just in case! MARK two.
During a show with a Celtic ensemble, I neglected to replace my 9-volt battery in the direct box during set up. Sound check was fine, but my sound cut out part way through a reel. I wound up playing in front of my vocal mic until the next break. Note to self: remove battery EVERY time, carry an extra, and replace with new one before live show! MARK three.
In the musical machine, you are a vital cog that must be prepared and maintained or you will cause a snag and, I promise you, everyone working on the production will notice and remember.
Of course, not every failure is your fault. Sometimes you are put in the position of needing to save the day (this is your chance to be that comic book hero mentioned earlier). Other players can have a bad day, equipment can fail, nature can most certainly get in the way – sometimes bad stuff just happens and it doesn’t matter what caused it; the show must go on!
Failures can be born before the gig even happens. Proper preparation not only prevents issues, it can help you recover from them as they occur during the gig – more on that in this next section.
A musician must sometimes be a magician or, perhaps, illusionist in order to recover: reading off of another’s stand; improvisation; re-directing the lost, to name a few.
During a musical, our orchestra was jammed in tight quarters hidden behind the curtain up stage with our stands practically on top of one another’s when the conductor leaned forward in a sweeping motion knocking his baton and hand against my stand causing my sheet music to litter the floor. Hot mic! Keep going! I caught a page under my foot and read the rest off of my neighbor’s stand. Never had I been more relieved to reach an intermission.
Once the Officiate gave me the nod, I would begin to play the opening four bars of Richard Wagner’s, “Bridal Chorus” signaling the congregation to stand, for the bride was ready to be ushered down the aisle. He nodded, I played, but no bride…oh, no! All of the music I have selected is scripted and timed for each of her steps! Let the improvising commence. This may take a while, and it did.
“Whiskey You're The Devil” was a popular song practically required in a pub at which our ensemble played. Although as a group we maintained a two-drink maximum during our two and three sets, one of our players would sometimes, eh-hem, lose count which caused a ripple effect, missing repeat signs, skipping a section or, one time, an entire song from the playlist order. That last part is especially burdensome for the player who switched between instruments. Me!
When the gig is going wrong in front of you, applying tools and techniques such as being prepared, thinking on the spot, and maintaining your cool, shows confidence in your ability to handle yourself in crisis and, more importantly, leaves a lasting impression on other performers and directors. The most important thing is NOT to broadcast flaws to the audience!
If the floor is crumbling beneath your feet, step to the right and keep playing!
Dealing with the fallout of your failures whether they were your fault or not can be emotionally taxing. After all, you have spent years building your repertoire, honing your skillset, and polishing your reputation all the while creating your business through contacts and the all-important referral. This is a word of mouth business and the community, no matter how big, is small.
As discussed in the first section, you must hold yourself accountable when you have made an error because of poor preparation, lack of organization or inattentiveness on your part. Learn from your mistakes, correct them quickly, and devise a strategy to prevent them from happening again. Also, an in person apology to the director post show and follow up thank you note written to the company or individual who hired you may smooth out the wrinkle, although, do not be surprised if they never call on you again.
Some things we learn the hard way through real world experience, which is a wonderful gift that leads us to critical thinking, application and confidence building. Recovering from the gig gone badly takes courage, confidence and on the spot thinking. Experience the failures, make adjustments, and forgive yourself. Then help save another musician!
So as you can see there are a number of ways that a gig can become flawed and, as provided above, a number of ways you can prevent, manage and recover from failure. So I leave you with this two-part question - are you, the entertainer, prepared for your next gig, and have you placed yourself in a position to deliver even if things haven't gone your way?
Thank you for taking the time to read this entry. Please share your personal “Gig Gone Bad” experiences in the comments section.
About Stacy: For over twenty-five years, Stacy England has been positioned in front and behind the scenes working as a professional violinist, violist, vocalist, private music educator, singer-songwriter, recording artist, multi-instrumentalist, guest conductor, and manager of international instrument and pro-sound equipment sales and installation in NJ, DE, MD, NC, and SC. She has been featured on local television, acted on stage and in short films, and performed in musical theatre productions, operettas, weddings, benefits, and rock bands as a violin and vocal soloist and ringer with companies and ensembles such as Brandywine Pops Orchestra, Newark Symphony, NIH Orchestra, Ferguson Fiddlers, Silvertone Music Ensemble, and Chapel Hill Philharmonia. She is lyricist, lead vocalist, and instrumentalist for Feed the Fire. Stacy England earned her BA in Music Education. She currently resides in Raleigh, NC with her husband and three children. Stacy says, "Never burn a bridge, and always dress the part!"