I am always looking for great posts and I was so happy when I read this post and Steve allowed me to repost it on this site. The advice in this post is valuable for any musician no matter the genre or level of the performer. Please share it with your students, colleagues and fellow musicians.
Being a Good Colleague – A guide to getting the hang of “the hang” for newly graduated music students.
As another year comes to a close at CSU, Long Beach (this was my 10th) I find myself thinking about what is next for all of the recently graduated music majors from the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music, as well as those from all of the other music schools across the country. Much has been written on the subject of improving as a musician, but not much gets put out there on the subject of interacting with your colleagues once you start working in the business. To be sure, the vast majority of your time as a young musician needs to be spent in the practice room perfecting the craft of your chosen instrument. However, I believe it’s also important to have some guidelines to help navigate the incredibly complicated social world of the professional musician.
There was a Xerox floating around Los Angeles in the late ’80’s or early ’90’s that addressed the subject, and Jeanne Baxtresser, former Principal Flute of the New York Philharmonic, put something out a little after that. However, things have changed quite a bit since that time – the internet, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter.
I thought that perhaps it would be useful for there to be a reminder for those that were around back then, and that maybe a new guide should be written for those not exposed to the originals that takes our current reality into consideration. By the way, lest you believe that I am preaching from some moral high ground, I have done many of these things at some point in my career and have been politely, and sometimes not politely, instructed in the correct way in which to comport myself. Some of these suggestions also come from observations on the job, and some come from cautionary tales passed on by more experienced and wiser people than myself.
Some basic stuff
- Be respectful and courteous. You’d be surprised that something so obvious would need to be addressed, but some folks seem to forget that there are actual people around them with actual feelings. No matter how young and good you are, you are sure to be surrounded by dozens of musicians who were you once upon a time. Once marriages, mortgages, kids, and aging enter your life, yes, you too may find that you don’t have time to practice that amazing warm-up routine that impresses everyone with its speed and technical wizardry.
- Have a functional warm up that actually just kind of warms you up. Now’s not the time for the fastest, highest, or lowest notes you can play. Unless you’re playing lead trumpet on a pops set, we don’t want to hear any screeching coming from your horn. Bass trombonists (and some tenor trombonists), we don’t need to hear your pedal note exercises now either. As wonderful as it feels, fortissimo pedal F’s are just kind of obnoxious when people around you are trying to quietly work out a passage or two before the gig starts.
- Don’t practice anything remotely resembling a solo that a colleague is going to play on the gig that day. This too may seem like a no-brainer, but some people just haven’t stopped to consider the head trip that their fellow performers put themselves through when they have an exposed solo or passage to play. Nor have they thought that it might be somewhat distracting to hear someone else playing said solo in the building beforehand.
- Don’t play your audition list on stage while people are trying to prepare for rehearsal. I’m the first guy to discover that vacant foyer, lower level rehearsal room, or vacant stage and I love to take advantage of the opportunity to practice in a good space. But come on. Not when people are putting their instruments together and warming up. If people are around, stop the mock audition about an hour before the service so everyone else can prepare to work.
- If you’re new to the group, take your cues from those who have been there before. Sometimes people don’t mind if everyone is noodling around, but sometimes they do. They really do mind, and they expect for everyone to just sort of respect the mellow mood of the room before the recording light comes on. If someone asks you if they make a practice mute for your horn, shut your hole.
- If possible, warm-up at home before the gig. If not, find a corner of the parking garage, or a room in the performing space that no one is going to go through. Stairwells, janitor closets, boiler rooms, trap rooms, and unused offices make good places to get the cobwebs out.
- Try to get to the point where you don’t need to play a 45 minute routine in order to be ready to do the gig. 5-10 minutes of soft exercises should really be enough.
- Don’t shuffle, give “the foot”, thumbs up, or any other affirmation to your colleague who just played a really hard lick, unless you know the group. Some ensembles are very reserved and consider it a possible jinx if you prematurely congratulate them before the set is finished. Again, read the room. If everyone’s doing it, then ok, but don’t be the first one. You don’t want to be perceived as the possible reason that your colleague chipped a note just because you wanted to be supportive and inadvertently got inside their head. If in doubt, wait until you’re packing up your horn after the last performance before you give anyone an, “atta boy!”
- Develop a poker face for when you’re in performance. Try to not give away with your facial expression the fact that you missed a note, your stand mate missed a note, or that you’re upset with anything. Audience members are like rhinos or bulls whose eyes are drawn to any facial movements that differ from the unmoving landscape of 100 stoic classical musician scowls. The running commentary that your face is expressing will become their focus instead of the music.
- Sit still if the colleagues around you are playing and you are not. It is very distracting to be playing while people are flitting about. If you must move in order to get a drink of water or pick up your iPad, please do so without bringing any unnecessary attention to yourself.
- This is a very potentially hazardous 10-20 minute window during which you should concentrate on taking care of “break” type business. This includes going to the bathroom, filling up your water bottle, and taking care of any paperwork that needs to be completed. Only after you’ve completed these tasks should you attempt to be social with anyone and “network”.
- Read. The. Room. Are the people who are talking together old friends? Is the group you are about to try and join talking about serious stuff? If so, pull up. Don’t go crashing headlong into a conversation in which you are not welcome. If you inadvertently find yourself in the middle of one of these situations because of an honest mistake, just stop and shut the hell up. If you made a gaff, politely apologize and leave the general area to do some break time activities mentioned above. If you’re lucky, no one will remember you.
- When in doubt, just keep to yourself. Wait for people to come up and talk to you. If no one does, don’t take it personally. This may be your first time on the job, but many of these folks have literally been on thousands of breaks and have a routine that doesn’t include making sure the new guy/gal feels ok about him/herself.
- When approached, be polite and courteous. Follow the rule of thumb of only speaking after having been spoken to. Answer questions and be friendly, but don’t take the opportunity to plug yourself or your band or your girl/boyfriend who’s also a musician. Just be cool. In time, like in any social situation, when the people are comfortable with you being around they will begin to try to get to know you.
- Find your peeps (if any) and hang out with them. Think back to the playground at grade school. When you were in 3rd grade you hung out with 3rd graders. Before you knew it you were in 6th grade looking down pitifully on all the poor scared 3rd graders. Don’t worry. Soon enough the big kids will ask you to play.
- Jokes. I’m not a particularly jokey kind of guy, but the telling of jokes fills a large amount of break time in some groups. Obviously, inflammatory jokes about sex, the disabled, and politics need to not even enter your mind during break time. If you must tell a joke, make sure you know your audience. Do not assume anything in this regard. People do get fired for insensitive remarks heard by the wrong person at the wrong time.
Internet: Oh boy, this is a tough one and the protocol for decent behavior is evolving every day.
- Tread carefully. Assume that any recording, video, picture, tweet, or blog post you make will be dissected, examined closely, and possibly eviscerated by the haters. Write the post then delete it before pulling the trigger. Examine, proofread, repeat. If you still find yourself compelled to post after doing this a few times, perhaps the recording, video, picture, tweet, or blog post is worthy to put out there for the rest of eternity. Understand that is what you are doing. Somewhere out there, there is a computer that is recording everything you post, and despite your most thorough privacy settings, it could come back and bite you. (You better believe this was the process used in constructing this post.)
- Technology will always favor the youth and each new generation brings its own set of ideas and social rules to the table. However, some of the best musicians I know, both young and old, have little to no internet presence whatsoever. You know why? Because they’re busy playing on your favorite movie, or winning that audition that you just got cut from. By and large the people you hear the least from are the ones doing the most work and having the most success. Facebook and an internet presence are necessary evils for the modern freelancer, no matter what your age, and the rules are not set. Try to err on the conservative side and proceed with extreme caution.
- The guys/gals are the guys/gals. You don’t have to live in a region for too long before you know who is doing the good work. They are likely in those positions for a reason and you have to respect that. No matter how you dress up your Facebook profile, Instagram account, or website, you have to have made a splash in the business first before you are accepted to the club. Don’t learn the wrong lesson from that fancy website or Facebook page of your favorite musician – they got great on their horn first, then they made the fancy website. You may get noticed because you’re young and hot, but sooner or later you’ve got to produce. It would be a shame to waste the opportunity by getting the shot without being able to back it up. Focus on winning competitions, auditions for summer festivals, regional orchestra auditions, and getting into a good masters program. Get established in the scene. Wait on the overly narcissistic website.
- When you start to have success, you have to balance your desire to let everyone know about it with the knowledge that music jobs are a limited commodity. You doing the gig means that others didn’t get the same opportunity. Being gracious in this regard can be tricky. On the other hand, it can be frustrating to stoically avoid self promotion while those around you seem to post about every single opportunity they have – especially if you’re doing better stuff.
- You must understand the pecking order and know who got you the gig. Acknowledge your benefactor and don’t go too crazy about posting about doing cool stuff when you know that you’re the 2nd, 3rd, or even last call on the list. Those folks above you who don’t post too much about themselves might just decide that you’re obnoxious or ungrateful and stop using you.
- If everyone around you is having a tough time, don’t do the backdoor brag about how you are just so busy that you can hardly keep up. This should be self-evident, but some folks seem to lack empathy for the mostly-suffering fate of many of their colleagues. You can be proud of yourself, but try to take the high road and celebrate your well deserved victory in private more often than you brag about your successes in public.
I recently heard someone use the following mantra when describing a way of behaving when dealing with large and varied group of people: “Don’t do stupid stuff.” I like that. The problem is that we don’t always know that what we’re doing is stupid at the time were doing it. All you can do is play the hand that you are dealt and try to make the best choice at the time. Understand that we’re all just trying to survive in an extremely competitive field. Music is a social endeavor and unless you’re planning to be a soloist, you’d better start to get the hang of “the hang”. You’re going to make missteps along the way, but perhaps with the help of a guide such as this you’ll make fewer bad ones. Maybe you’ll be saved from yourself before the stakes get really high and you lose a gig.
The best piece of advice I’ve ever heard about this subject comes from my wife, Rena Urso-Trapani’s, father, Santo Urso, who played Assistant Concertmaster with the Detroit Symphony for 46 years. He said, “Just go in there. Sit down. Do your job. And keep your ***-damned mouth shut!”
Steve Trapani, bass trombonist, is currently a member of the Oakland East Bay Symphony, the Sacramento Philharmonic, the Long Beach Municipal Band, and the Pageant of the Masters Orchestra. In addition to being a member of trombone faculty of the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music at California State University, Long Beach since 2005, he was also the Instructor of Trombone and Euphonium at California State University, Fresno from 2003-2010.
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