On Easter Sunday my wife, her parents and I took a walk after lunch. My dad-in-law said, “Looks like Jim is working in his garage. Let’s go see what he’s doing.” Jim was working on his dragster.
Molly and I started asking questions, and I was stunned at how incredibly detailed the whole enterprise was. Jim said the races are won and lost by thousandths of a second. Not tenths, not hundredths—thousandths. He does what’s called ‘bracket racing’, and is not allowed to come in under a certain time. If he goes too fast, he breaks out of the bracket and loses. If he goes too slow, the other guy will beat him. So they race to within thousandths of a second.
He lost a race last year for this reason: when he ran the qualifying run, he came in at (if I remember right) 4.862 seconds. But it was early morning, and the air was cool. The cars run faster when the air is cooler. So an hour later he checked the weather gear he keeps in his trailer, saw that not only had the temperature had risen, but the humidity and barometric pressure had also changed slightly. So he set the dragster to launch so that his time would be 4.859 seconds, because he knew the change in the weather would slow him down.
Except, it didn’t. He beat the other guy, but the car ran the exact same as his qualifying time and broke out of the bracket. He lost the race by miscalculating by three thousandths of a second.
Every endeavor in life is like that.
The people who are really good at anything operate at a far deeper level than it looks like from the surface.
Here’s a short list of things the good musicians I know do when they play, and it makes them useful.
- They do whatever it takes to be ready.
Many of the players I know will rewrite the music so it’s easier to read, and includes information that wasn’t in the original. The last time I played with my drummer friend Danny Reyes, he had rewritten every single chart into a one-page summary, with notes to himself about the things he needed to remember. He knew the tempos, where the feel of the song changed, got louder, softer, etc. He was so ready that he was telling the leader what to change and how things went. People who hire Danny know this, and they come to rely on him.
2) They play whatever needs playing.
You usually shouldn’t play whatever part is on the recording, at least not exactly. This is because the people who played on the recording are not onstage with you. Other people are, and they play differently. The drummer plays the groove a little different, the recording has an electric guitar, but the guitar player on your stage is playing an acoustic, and so forth. The music goes together differently every time. You have to adjust on the fly. For instance: the guitar on the recording is a funky little figure played way up the neck on the electric, but the acoustic player onstage with you is strumming open chords. If you’re on piano, you need to move up and out of the acoustic player’s range so the two of you aren’t circling around middle C and making it muddy. Or better yet—anticipate this, rewrite the chart for the acoustic player so he/she can capo up the neck and get out of your way. Yeah, that’s extra work, but you want to play the cool piano part, right?
3) They play into the groove.
In almost all 4/4 music, the accent is on the second and fourth beats. Whatever you’re playing when those beats roll around, you hit those notes harder. If the song switches to half time, or slows down, you accent the third beat instead. Make sure you’re accenting what everyone else is accenting.
If everyone else is doing it wrong, you have to do it wrong along with them, or you’ll make it worse. You’re part of an ensemble.
4) They play in the moment.
I’ve read that battle plans usually never survive the first two minutes actual shooting. It’s this way onstage. Things change. In rehearsal, you decided to make the last verse really, really soft, but when the people in the auditorium fill up the seats, it’s so soft that it’s not going anywhere at all. You don’t know this until that last verse starts, and you realize there’s a crying baby, a car horn honking in the parking lot, traffic noise, people singing along—whatever. When you hear it, you change. You pump more energy into that verse in order to get done what you planned. Doesn’t matter that it worked in rehearsal. What matters is what’s going on right now, onstage, in front of the audience.
5) They get out of the way.
They check their egos at the door. Sometimes the song just doesn’t need very much from you. Don’t be more important than the song. If somebody else needs to shine, get out of the way and let them shine. It’s not about you, it’s about the ensemble. It’s about the result. Don’t wait for the leader to tell you this–just back off and let the song be what it needs to be.
6) They play the fewest notes it takes to get the job done.
If the song has a 16th note feel, you don’t need to play something on every single one of those 16th’s. On acoustic guitar, just throwing the occasional up strum on a 16th note will give the same effect, and with less clutter. Like the old WWII poster about saving gas—“Is This Trip Necessary?”—always ask yourself if you can get the job done with fewer notes.
Do these things, and the band you play with will sound better. When the band you play with sounds better, you’ll get asked back. Get asked back, and you get to play more. I mean, that’s what we’re after, right?